If there were no fighting, would there be more stick-swinging? NHL leaders have thought so – forever

Jason Kay
Detroit Red Wings v Montreal Canadiens

The ugly incidents in Boston on Saturday prompted the inevitable negative attention the NHL receives whenever the violence needle jumps from the “fun bloodlust” zone to “egregious embarrassment.”

And, predictably, the fight debate was re-ignited.

THN senior columnist Adam Proteau, serendipitously, had an interview scheduled with commissioner Gary Bettman on the weekend. While the game’s gatekeeper stickhandled around the specifics on the Shawn Thornton and James Neal cases, deferring to his department of corrections, he did allow that if the time ever came when he felt there was real support among his constituency to make fighting punishable by ejection, he’d expand the dialogue. He went on to cite a recent poll that apparently found 98 percent of players want things to remain status quo in terms of penalties for fisticuffs.

It was a little like saying he’d be in favor of giving everyone free tickets to all NHL games if that’s what his owners supported.

Recently, at a sports conference, Bettman made similar statements on the subject matter, saying he wanted to take the pulse of team managers. At the same time, he also espoused the safety valve theory. “I’d rather see them be punching each other than swinging sticks at each other,” he told TSN’s Gord Miller.

If you think you’ve heard that someplace before, it’s because you have. It’s a philosophy that pre-dates us all, one that NHL leaders have been citing since there was a rover.

For a point of comparison, here’s how NHL president Clarence Campbell felt about the issue, as written by Stan Fischler in the Feb. 11, 1961 edition of The Hockey News.

PREXY WON’T CLAMP DOWN ON FIGHTERS

By Stan Fischler

In the wake of an oversized brawl between the New York Rangers and the Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL President Clarence Campbell today spelled out the League’s policy on fighting.

In essence it is this:

Fighting is inevitable.

Too much fighting is no good.

But if there must be fighting, bareknuckle battles are preferred over stick-fights.

Mr. Campbell made these disclosures in an exclusive Hockey News interview in New York.

The big blowup of the 1960-61 season occurred in Toronto Jan. 18 when at least half a dozen fights started after Lou Fontinato and Bert Olmstead began fussing.

Olmstead came out of it with cuts and blackened eyes while Fontinato suffered a severely cut left knee. The Ranger defenseman alleges that he was deliberately kicked by a Leaf player.

Mr. Campbell said that his appearance in New York at the return match between Rangers and Leafs had nothing to do with the previous melee and that he was en route to the NHL owners’ meeting in Palm Beach, Fla.

But the President disclosed his views on fighting and admitted that, in some cases, fighting is an acceptable part of hockey.

“Fighting is an excellent safety valve,” Mr. Campbell said. “If the NHL takes away that safety valve it will have spearing and other stick work and somebody will be carved up.”

The President admitted that “some people” have urged him to completely eliminate fighting. Mr. Campbell refused the suggestion.

“A fellow should have a chance to assert his manhood,” Mr. Campbell said. “Besides, few players are seriously hurt in a fist fight.”

Some NHL players disapprove of the present NHL system whereby linesmen step in to break up a fight almost as soon as it starts.

“We invoked the policy of immediately breaking up fights to protect the players,” the President said, “There frequently will be fighters of unequal strength – one lis liable to get badly hurt. That’s why we can’t let the fight continue without interruption.”

Mr. Campbell allowed that sometimes it might be a good idea to let the players swing away.

“Some of them are just bluffing anyway,” he said.

A former NHL referee, Mr. Campbell admitted that when he officiated, the NHL utilized a two-referee system and a “let them fight” policy.

Occasionally present-day NHL officials invoke the “let them fight” credo to save their own skulls.

The most notable example of this in recent years was the Fontinato-Gordie Howe fight of Feb. 1, 1959, when the two stood toe-to-toe for more than a minute, arms flailing like windmills.

The scene was so dangerous that even courageous players stayed a good 10 feet away to avoid decapitation.

* * * * *

For added value, here’s a taste of how fighting looked during the latter part of Campbell’s tenure.

And, if you’re wondering, the classic photo at the beginning of the post is a tussle between Hall-of-Famers Ted Lindsay and Jean Beliveau.