NHL fighting culture’s biggest foe is the legal system

Adam Proteau
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A report that the NHL is taking further measures to restrict fighting should surprise no one. It was inevitable, because the hockey business does not operate in a vacuum. And it’s the power of the outside world that’s forcing the league to abandon the empty excuse of tradition bit-by-bit and step-by-step when it comes to players punching each other.

Legal liability for the physical and mental repercussions of violence is something that factors prominently into the thinking of league brass and team owners, not just in the NHL, but in the National Football League as well. The wave of concussions in both sports has led to justifiable concern about the health of athletes and what their employers do to minimize the risk of injury. But the NFL’s recently-settled lawsuit filed by former players doesn’t mean the issue is over. And with the Steve Moore/Todd Bertuzzi court case still making its way through the Ontario system, you’d be foolish if you didn’t think the NHL is seriously concerned about the ramifications of a court ruling against the league.

If that happened, control would be out of the league’s hands. And as we all know, the NHL hates few things more than losing control.

Moving too quickly on the fighting issue could be seen as an indictment of the NHL’s past treatment of player safety, so changes come in small increments: the rule about helmets being removed before fights, and the league asking linesmen to step in and stop fights as soon as players remove their helmets are the most recent examples. But despite the death rattle of fight fetishists who resist all calls for logic and reason to rule the debate, the league has no choice but to head in a proper direction. And longtime hockey observers knew years ago that it was coming.

“(The NHL) is so worried about a death and that is because they’re so afraid of government oversight or intervention into their private business,” veteran agent Allan Walsh told me in 2011. “But the public and the media can make a very strong argument that, if the NHL isn’t willing to police itself and pass what everyone considers to be fair and reasonable rules to stamp out this behavior, then the government ought to.”

That’s the prism through which you should be seeing player safety rules and rule changes. It’s nice to imagine the NHL is making these moves solely out of the goodness of their own hearts. But, as always, money is running the show.

And the threat of losing money through the court system is proving to be a strong motivator in the league finally doing what’s reasonable and proper: not a fight ban, as the red herring enthusiasts of the debate will squawk about – but a sensible move away from the unjustifiable status quo.