Fighting in the NHL: Should it stay or go?
(Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)
Fighting in the NHL: Should it stay or go?
Goons are almost gone and fisticuffs are down, but the great fighting debate rages on. We take an in-depth look at the place of fighting in today’s game.Depending on which team you ask, the opening-whistle line brawl between Calgary and Vancouver last season was either a stupid distraction or just what the doctor ordered. When Flames coach Bob Hartley started noted heavyweights such as Brian McGrattan and Kevin Westgarth, Canucks bench boss John Tortorella countered with enforcers Tom Sestito and Kellan Lain, who happened to be making his NHL debut. Westgarth lined up at center and was eventually greeted by rugged defenseman Kevin Bieksa – who, for posterity’s sake, won the draw – and the fists went a-flying. The final score was 3-2 Vancouver, but that may have been the least important number that night in a game that featured a combined 204 penalty minutes. Due to ejections, Dan Hamhuis played 36 minutes for Vancouver, while Dennis Wideman led Calgary with 38. And then there was Tortorella, who ended up charging the Calgary dressing room between periods. It was not a normal night at the office. “I didn’t like it,” said Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin. “That’s not hockey. We had an older team, an older core. We didn’t talk too much about it after.” Whether the brawl was a bellwether or not, the Canucks sputtered the rest of the season and eventually missed the playoffs. Tortorella was fired, as was GM Mike Gillis. For the Flames, however, it may have been the high point of a rebuilding season. “Our team got closer after that,” Westgarth said. “Everybody was a part of it. There were the guys in the fight, then there were the guys who weren’t, who ended up logging quite a few more minutes and battling their way through. After the game, I’ve never seen a more content room. It galvanized the group, and it would be incredibly sad to lose that element of the game.” Is that element being lost? Westgarth, for example, was among several fighters who didn’t find NHL work this season, along with heavyweights Paul Bissonnette, Krys Barch, Colton Orr, George Parros and Frazer McLaren. Looking at the fighting leaderboard early on in the NHL, you’d find names such as San Jose’s Andrew Desjardins and Colorado’s Cody McLeod, both of whom kill penalties and play about 10 minutes a game. “You’re already seeing a lot of that,” said Carolina GM and Hall of Famer Ron Francis. “Now you get teams that have scoring on all four lines. The way the game is played and the pace it is played at, teams that have success are the ones that have 12 forwards who can give you minutes.” It’s a pretty dramatic shift if you look at recent history. The New York Rangers took Dylan ‘The Undertaker’ McIlrath 10th overall in 2010, even though fellow blueliner Cam Fowler, a finesse player, was still available. Behemoth defenseman Keegan Kanzig was drafted and quickly signed by Calgary last season, while Tom Wilson found a place on the Washington Capitals as a 19-year-old and cemented it when he laid a beating on Calgary’s Lance Bouma after a dodgy hit knocked out the Caps’ Jack Hillen.
Fighting has always been a lightning-rod issue in hockey. Don Cherry has more than two decades worth of videos celebrating the best knucklechuckers, while publications such as THN have long debated and often criticized the role of fighting in the sport. Surveys of NHL players and fans always come out heavily in favor of fighting, but the bottom line for leagues is safety, and the bottom line for teams is winning.On the organizational side, the American League has mandated that any player who incurs two fighting majors (or three majors of any kind) in a game will receive an automatic game misconduct. In the Ontario League, the rules have become even harsher. New regulations brought in this season include an expanded “staged fight” penalty, which classifies any bout immediately after a faceoff as staged (before it only covered the opening faceoff in each period) and therefore subject to an automatic game misconduct. Two fighting majors in a game will also result in a game misconduct (down from three previously). Teams can also be fined for exceeding three fighting majors in a game. So it’s fair to say there’s a full-blown crackdown on mayhem in the OHL. This comes on the heels of 2012-13’s edict that players who hit more than 10 fighting majors are automatically suspended for a game, with escalating punishments thereafter. Windsor’s Ty Bilcke had fought 37 times the previous campaign but was down to 10 dust-ups after the rule came into effect. Overall, the OHL went from having 25 players with more than 10 majors or more to just four, year over year. The big philosophical question, of course, is whether hockey is safer without fighting. The obvious answer is, “Yes, less face-punching is probably safer,” but there are subtleties in the game that preclude such a snap judgment. “You have guys in this league who are paid to change the way the other team plays,” Westgarth said. “Either the big heavyweight guys like Brian McGrattan, or the smaller agitators. I would hate to see the unintended side effects of where hockey would go without fighting, without that threat of retribution. It’s a fast, violent game where we’re wearing weapons on our feet and essentially carrying a club. So while a two- or five- minute penalty is a bad thing, it’s not going to knock somebody off their path of destruction as much as somebody grabbing them and punching them in the face.” That’s one of the great unknowns. Would the absence of the McGrattans and Westgarths of the world pave the way for an even worse world run by Matt Cooke and Raffi Torres types? NHL hockey has never been played without fighting, so it’s difficult to get a handle on that scenario unless the league took the plunge. The closest comparable would be the NCAA, where fighting is punished by an automatic game misconduct and a one-game suspension. So how does the college game look with virtually no fisticuffs? “You don’t play as many games, so that first 20 minutes of a Friday night game, it’s almost like no one is playing hockey,” said Columbus’ Corey Tropp, who skated for Michigan State. “They drop the puck and you try to kill guys in the corner. I don’t know if it’s because there’s no fighting or because of the build-up, but there’s a lot of crash-and-bang, not much finesse out there. “I mean, you can’t fight or else you’ll get suspended. There’s nothing you can do. It’s not really a debate, to be honest.” Tropp himself disproved that, however, when he played for the Spartans. In a notorious incident that got him suspended for the duration of Michigan State’s season (17 games) in late January 2009, Tropp slashed a prone Steve Kampfer of Michigan in the neck after Spartans teammate Andrew Conboy had suckerpunched the Wolverines defenseman in retaliation for a clean, thundering hit on Tropp. Conboy was also suspended for the remainder of the campaign and never returned to Michigan State, turning pro with Montreal’s AHL affiliate in Hamilton the next season. Would Conboy and Tropp have acted in such a manner if one of them had been able to fight 1-on-1 with Kampfer? Perhaps. Recall that Todd Bertuzzi’s assault on Steve Moore came during a game where Moore had already fought once so that wasn’t a factor. What is interesting, however, is comparing the NCAA and major junior. Here you have two different circuits that both funnel developing players into the pro ranks. In college, there’s rarely any fighting, while in the CHL it’s still prominent, even if it isn’t as frequent as it’s been in the recent past. If, as proponents argue, fighting diffuses ugliness in hockey and can prevent even worse infractions, that would bear out on the scoresheet. Which is kind of what happens when the NCAA and CHL are compared. Despite the fact college players are slightly older on average (and therefore, you would think, a little less rash and emotional) than their major junior counterparts, there are more dirty penalties called in NCAA games than in major junior contests. So if you’re looking at things like spearing, hitting from behind, hits to the head, boarding, elbowing or charging, there is a slightly better chance you will see it in a college game than in a major junior tilt. As an exercise, a random weekend was chosen (late February 2014) and games from Hockey East, the NCHC and ECAC were analyzed for the aforementioned penalties. The same was done for games in the OHL and Western League, and there were a slightly greater number of calls in college – 51 in 30 games vs. 47 in 34 major junior games, to be precise. So is NCAA hockey dirtier than major junior? Michael Sdao is an Ottawa Senators pick who plays for AHL Binghamton, where he acts as a defensive defenseman and a nuclear option when the team needs him. He’s also a Princeton University grad, following past Tigers tough guys such as Westgarth and Parros. He has played with and without fighting in his young career. “In college, guys are running around a bit more,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s more or less dirty…Fighting may keep players a bit more honest.” As for European leagues, the volume differs by country. The Kontinental League is young, but it has already seen one of the all-time goon squads with Vityaz Chekhov. The 2011-12 edition of the team was coached by former NHL enforcer Andrei Nazarov and featured Kip Brennan, Jon Mirasty, Jeremy Yablonski and Nick Tarnasky – all North Americans who accrued more than 170 PIM in 31 games or less. One year prior, the team featured Chris Simon, Darcy Verot and Josh Gratton with similar pugilistic results. Head over to Sweden, however, and you’ll find a more docile game. That can sometimes make for a rude awakening when NHL prospects come over to North America, as Andre Burakowsky found out when he joined the OHL’s Erie Otters last season. “It’s much worse here,” he said. “Guys were constantly trying to challenge me to fights.” So the issue of dirtiness is a tricky one. But what about popularity? Anecdotally, the crowd always seems to rise from the seats when there’s a fight on the ice, just as when there’s a goal. The most talked-about rivalries in the game, whether it’s Calgary-Edmonton, Pittsburgh-Philadelphia or Montreal-Boston, have always had fighting components to them, and the first major brawl of 2014-15 was between California titans San Jose and Anaheim. But again, we have no way of knowing if those blood feuds would run as deep without fisticuffs because the situation has never existed. The anti-fighting crowd points to the Olympics as hockey at its best, but of course the game is going to be good when all-star laden national squads from Canada or Sweden or the United States are facing off for glory in a short tournament. Less is said about the games when Italy or Japan are laboring on the ice for 60 mundane minutes. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has consistently said there would have to be a dramatic shift in opinion among the team GMs for the league to change its stance on fighting. He even referred to it as a “thermostat” that helps cool the game down when tensions get too high. Bettman also acknowledged that moods change, citing head shots as an issue that used to get little traction but is now one of the major focuses of concern in hockey. Fighting becomes a hot-button topic when something goes awry in a high-profile game. For example, 2013-14 kicked off with Montreal’s Parros being stretchered off the ice when he fell during a tilt with Toronto’s Orr. Parros was pulled over by Orr by his jersey as the Maple Leafs enforcer was falling down. And although it was more of a weird accident than anything, it does call to mind the grappling and mixed martial arts style training that many fighters have taken up in recent years. Former Flyers fighter Riley Cote trained in MMA, while Kanzig, the Calgary prospect, has incorporated boxing into his summer workout routine. But the “takedowns” that often result in modern fights are often more dangerous than the bouts themselves. Although concussions are always a threat, so are dislocated shoulders and sprained ACLs when the grappling gets too aggressive. “I find that’s a little dangerous,” said Columbus’ Nick Foligno. “If a guy catches his skate the wrong way, he could blow out his knee. There’s enough falling in a normal fight, you don’t need to be taking the guy down.” Another controversial element of fighting is the tilt that happens in the wake of a clean hit. After all, bodychecks are legal in hockey, even the most thunderous of collisions (unless the International Ice Hockey Federation is involved). So why should a player have to drop the gloves if he made a play that wouldn’t even warrant a two-minute minor? For Foligno, it’s a bit of a Catch-22 in a game played by a warrior’s imperfect code. “I’ve been on both sides,” he said. “It’s hard. If a guy gets hit and you know he can handle it, maybe you let it go. But if there’s a guy who’s not normally a fighter, or if he’s one of your big skill guys, you don’t want the other team thinking they can take liberties on a guy like that, so you step in. There are some instances when it’s a clean hit and a guy comes over for absolutely no reason – those can go by the wayside – but it’s hard because you’re trying to stand up for your teammates, and you don’t want the other team to think they can push you around. It’s a fine line.” What has become apparent, at least in the early stages of 2014-15, is that efforts to cut down on all but the most organic fights – think of everyone’s favorite example of Jarome Iginla and Vincent Lecavalier in the 2004 Stanley Cup final – are working. Many of the players responsible for staged fights are out of the NHL right now, fisticuffs were down through the first couple months of the season and the combatants were different and more skilled. What will hockey’s future hold? With safety and concussions taken more seriously now than ever, is there a place in the game for bare-knuckle brawling? In the most recent NHL Players’ Association survey, 98 percent of players said they support fighting, and they’re the ones with the most skin in the game. Of course, if advertisers don’t want to be associated with the practice, or if fans decided they didn’t like to see a donnybrook here or there, then the NHL would have a different reaction. Are the tides changing for good, or is the emphasis on bottom-six players who can log minutes and drive possession simply weeding out fight-only guys in favor of those who can throw fists and also kill penalties or take faceoffs? Ask the players if fighting will still exist in 10 years and you’ll find some fatalistic answers. “It truly looks like it could be out of the game, obviously with the way that things have been going,” said New York Islander Kyle Okposo. “A lot of the media, a lot of the people in management, you can understand why people are concerned about that and certainly are nervous with that. But at the same time, you play the game at this level, and it’s a risk that you take. Like any physical sport, this is a part of it.” On the other hand, hockey is a very conservative sport when it comes to change and traditions die hard. “I don’t think it’s the right time to take fighting out of the game today,” said New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello. “There are still players who would take liberties if fighting wasn’t there. That little fear or respect that it could happen keeps the game in a better place. If liberties are taken, you have to react.” Skip Prince was the commissioner of the United States League for six years before leaving at the end of last season. He’s in favor of intense hockey and hip checks, but he doesn’t like to see fights for the sake of fights. When two players in the USHL circle each other, Prince believes in many cases at least one of them isn’t all that enthusiastic about fighting in the first place. In a league where the vast majority of players end up going to college instead of major junior, it would make sense to clamp down on fighting, and that’s what Prince was investigating by the end of his tenure. Could the penalty for fighting be increased from five to 10 minutes? Could players circling before a tilt be broken up and given delay of game penalties before a fist is even thrown? And what about banning all but the most organic fights – line brawls, goalie fights, third-man in and so on? “I’ve still got moms and dads that think hockey is a toothless goon game,” Prince said. “That stereotype still exists.” For a league that’s still growing, the USHL needs to attract new fans while keeping the old ones. In terms of attendance, there was a slight correlation between PIM and popularity: Lincoln finished second in both categories, while Sioux Falls was first in attendance and sixth out of 16 teams in punishments. The season prior, Lincoln was on top in PIM and second in fans, though the other popular teams were further down, so maybe Stars supporters in Nebraska just like it rough. The challenge for new USHL commissioner Bob Fallen and all league heads is deciding on a course of action without knowing the consequences: is fighting part of hockey’s culture and integral to the fabric of the game or a sideshow that can be cast aside as an outdated relic? It’s a question worthy of heavyweight attention. This feature appeared in the Dec. 8 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.