Fighting in the NHL: just be transparent

Jason Kay
Washington Capitals v Philadelphia Flyers

Before I go any further, let me clearly state this is not an anti-fighting post. Rather, it’s a plea for logic and transparency.

Gary Bettman’s appearance at a sports conference in Toronto yesterday stoked the fisticuffs-in-hockey debate, 24 hours in advance of the GMs’ meetings – a gathering we’re told will address goalie tussles.

TSN’s Gord Miller asked the commissioner pointed questions about the future of scraps in shinny, and, for the most part, Bettman defended the status quo. While he said they’re going to take the temperature of the GMs today on the issue, there’s no indication there’s an appetite for any kind of radical shift.

Fair enough. The NHL is entitled to run its business as it sees fit. It’s the rationale behind the arguments that are troublesome. To wit:

Fighting is a “thermostat”, said the commissioner, a release of energy in a more “constructive” way than some alternatives – namely, stick work. And he referenced the 2004 Jarome Iginla-Vincent Lecavalier fight as an example of the dynamic at play. That’s right, 2004. It’s the fight that we all talk about as a symbol of a “legitimate” hockey scrap. But if you have to reach back a decade to find evidence to support a theory, perhaps it’s time to re-examine the theory.

When you watch that fight, it’s undeniably raw. Avoidable for sure – every action we take is a matter of choice, no matter how intense the situation is – but still engaging and good theatre. But it was the exception. By a galaxy.

The Ray Emery scenario was also discussed. Bettman said the league doesn’t react rashly to incidents; that it needs to examine situations as they arise and follow a process. Again, good sound bite, but a cop out.

There is precedent for the NHL to interpret a rule, and expand its meaning, in the name of justice. And it didn’t take weeks, months or years to instigate change. With Sean Avery, it took one day. The morning after he waved his arms in Martin Brodeur’s face in an attempt to screen/agitate, the league announced copy-cat action would result in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
In Emery’s case, could the league not have turned to Rule 27.6 and widened its interpretation? It states, in part:

27.6 Leaving Goal Crease – A minor penalty shall be imposed on a goalkeeper who leaves the immediate vicinity of his crease during an altercation. In addition, he shall be subject to a fine of two hundred dollars ($200) and this incident shall be reported to the Commissioner for such further disciplinary action as may be required.

Unless I’m missing something, this would have given Bettman the authority for supplemental discipline, even if it’s not explicitly spelled out.

The point is, what Emery did was wrong. By every reasonable person’s standards. A whopping 85 per cent of respondents to a poll at thn.com voted that Emery should have been suspended. Who knows what the 15 per cent were thinking – due process perhaps? A few of them may have even supported Emery’s actions. Of course, there are some people in Toronto who would again vote for Rob Ford as mayor.

The point is, nobody wants to feel manipulated. Emery could/should have been suspended. Fighting needn’t be a “thermostat”.  It’s an element of the game most executives, players and fans still embrace for its primal feel and related adrenaline rush. Why not just say that?