Adam Proteau: Yzerman leads sea change on NHL fighting

Adam Proteau
172558391 Yzerman

Rational human beings change their opinions regularly. So while it wasn’t earth-shattering news that three NHL GMs spoke out Wednesday about their evolving views on the perennial hot-button topic of fighting, the fact that ten percent of the league’s gatekeeper management members – and arguably the greatest coach in league history – spoke in unison and with such force on the topic is definitely something out of the ordinary.

And the fact one of those gatekeepers, Lightning GM and Hockey Hall-of-Famer Steve Yzerman, has been one of the sport’s biggest traditionalists prior to this change of heart tells you all you need to know about where the fighting issue is headed.

When Yzerman told TSN he believes all players who fight should be assessed a game misconduct, it represented a sea change for the former Red Wings legend, who never was known to be particularly outspoken as a player and early in his tenure as Tampa Bay’s GM. Some will call him a hypocrite whose success as a player came with the help of tough guys such as Darren McCarty and the late Bob Probert, but that’s wholly unfair; simply because you played in an era where fighting is more acceptable doesn’t tie you to that philosophy for the rest of your days.

Yzerman is like a growing number of people inside and outside the NHL – players, coaches and league management members – who can’t reconcile the slew of logical flaws in the league’s status quo on fighting. “We penalize and suspend players for making contact with the head while checking, in an effort to reduce head injuries, yet we still allow fighting,” Yzerman said. “We’re stuck in the middle and need to decide what kind of sport do we want to be. Either anything goes and we accept the consequences, or take the next step and eliminate fighting.”

We all know the NHL never will go back to the days of “anything goes”, so there is only one road ahead: a drastic, permanent change to the way fisticuffs are regarded and addressed by the league. Yzerman’s colleague from Carolina, Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, made that perfectly clear. “We”ve got to get rid of fighting,” Rutherford told TSN. “It has to go.”

Penguins GM Ray Shero was the third GM to speak out, calling for more leadership from the league on the issue; while iconic bench boss Scotty Bowman went to his Twitter account to support all three in their views. All in all, it was a remarkable show of intellectual force and honesty at a time the NHL commissioner still was trotting out tired platitudes regarding the necessity of fighting as an anger release valve for players.

This isn’t the first time a prominent hockey voice has reversed course and argued against fighting. Longtime Bruins GM Harry Sinden was one of the first to do so some 20 years back and remains a voice for sanity in the sport. But he never had the support of his fellow hockey executives as Yzerman, Shero, Rutherford and Bowman now do. More importantly, he never had science backing him up the way it does for the anti-fighting crowd today.

There’s a sizeable contingent of GMs and players that will battle tooth-and-nail to keep as much fighting as they can in the NHL. But if you pay attention, you’ll note that nobody – not fans, not media and certainly not players and executives – jumps from the anti-fighting contingent to the pro-fight group. The defections all happen on a one-way street. That’s telling.

Is this truly the tipping point for the NHL and fighting? Maybe not. Okay, probably not. But when the debate explodes publicly in the game’s ivory towers in a way it hasn’t before, something different is happening. When hockey lifers like Yzerman, Rutherford and Shero are comfortable talking as they did Wednesday, the game and the people in it really are changing.

And that is very good news for anyone who has been banging this drum for decades.