Michael Latta and Bobby Robbins (Getty Images)
The evolution of the game of hockey has reduced fighting to a footnote. So what better time than now for the NHL and all other leagues to cut the cord completely?In a jubilant New York Islanders dressing room after a recent overtime road win over the Anaheim Ducks, Eric Boulton snapped the scoresheet out of the hands of Islanders star John Tavares. “First game of the year!” Boulton exclaimed. “Might be the last!” When a species goes extinct, often the last to actually realize it are the ones in it. But that clearly is not the case with Boulton. He sees the end coming for his ilk. After all, that game was the Islanders’ 12th of this season and it was the first time Boulton had participated in anything beyond the morning skate and pre-game warm-up. Even at the relatively paltry salary of $650,000, there’s not a team in the world that wants to pay a guy to play in 8.5 percent of his team’s games. So it’s likely Boulton will take his almost $8 million in career earnings and ride off into the sunset, leaving the NHL with one fewer one-dimensional player.
This is hardly a requiem for a heavyweight. Enforcers around the NHL are being organically phased out. The ones who aren’t in the minors or still looking for work are getting spot duty, more often than not finding themselves in the press box or with their pants nailed to the bench when the puck drops for real. And with apologies to Martha Stewart, that’s a good thing. In fact, the list of leaders in NHL fights is crowded with a bunch of middleweights who can actually play the game as well.What we’re seeing is a slowly evolving trend. And what it is allowing us to do, perhaps for the first time in the history of the NHL, is at least envision what the game would be like if there were no fighting. Through the first month, league was seeing roughly one fight every three games. Just to be clear, that’s just one instance in 180 minutes or more of fierce, intense and physical competition where opponents saw fit to drop their gloves and start pounding on one another. In only four (four!) of the league’s first 186 games was there more than one fight. If this trend continues, there will be so little fighting in the NHL that you have to wonder why the league even bothers to devote five pages of its rulebook to it and endure the criticism that comes with it. To be sure, the appetite for the insipid staged fight between the dancing bears has all but disappeared. But even without the staged fight, bareknuckle boxing on skates is clearly becoming a smaller and smaller part of this great game. And have things changed drastically? Are the so-called “rats” that seemed to require teams to have an enforcer in the past running around with impunity and taking out the stars of the game at the knees? No more than when there was more fighting, I’d argue. Are sticks any higher than they were in the past? Are players taking more liberties with one another and respecting them less? The answer, at least anecdotally, is no. After a very quiet period to start the season, the league’s department of player safety is once again handing out suspensions at a pretty regular rate. Almost every night now we’re seeing a handful of hits where there’s a debate whether or not the player should be suspended. Nothing terribly new with that. So let’s assume for the moment that the sky is not falling. The game is not being overrun with players of questionable character and those who do cross the line are being dealt with more harshly than before. (From a personal standpoint, there have been a couple of suspensions this season that were actually longer than I expected they would be, like the three-gamer to Vancouver’s Alexandre Burrows for his headshot on Montreal’s Alexei Emelin.) I once had an agent ask me that if the league removed fighting, who would police the likes of Matt Cooke. And we all know the answer to that. Matt Cooke was never deterred from being a dirty player by the prospect of being beaten up. What did prompt the transformation in his game – at least for a while – was the prospect that it was going to be taken away from him for good. And that’s where we are in the game. Fighting is no longer serving as a deterrent. The one-dimensional goons are slowly and quietly been weeded out and the game is surviving just fine. The point is, we don’t actually have to wait until fighting is gone to see what effect it has on the game because it’s such a miniscule part of the proceedings anyway. So why not just cut the cord and make it official? Will anyone really notice? Will anyone really care? Will anyone stop going to the games or stop watching them on television? No more than have already stopped because they’re not getting their bloodlust satisfied. It’s time. Not because some people find it offensive – some to their sensibilities, others to their intelligence. Not because someone someday is going to be killed doing it. It’s time because it no longer has a place in the game. The NHL is proving that beyond a reasonable doubt. 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.