NHL commissioner Gary Bettan responds to a question during a news conference Saturday, January 24, 2009 in Montreal in advance to this weekend\'s National Hockey League All Star Game. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
MONTREAL - The NHL is ready to seriously examine the role of fighting in hockey.
It's not a process that commissioner Gary Bettman has shown much eagerness to oversee during his 16 years on the job, but times are about to change.
"We will have a good candid discussion," Bettman said Saturday after a board of governors meeting. "We are not going to have any immediate knee-jerk reactions. We're going to have to study things before we make changes - if we decide to make changes.
"I don't think there's any appetite to abolish fighting from the game ... but I do think what we're going to have to take a good hard look at is what I described to the board as the rules of engagement."
That's a somewhat softer stance than the commissioner has traditionally taken on the issue, but it seems to mirror the current climate among the game's stakeholders.
Even Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, one of fighting's staunchest defenders, conceded that some kind of change is likely coming.
"We'll probably have to look at some of the mechanics of it - what's permitted and what's not," he said.
That won't officially happen until the GM's meeting in March. In the meantime, the league will compile all the data it can to see if there are any negative trends associated with fighting that can be addressed with a rule change.
The issue tends to be a sensitive one because many people view fighting as an integral part of the game.
"I think most of our fans enjoy that aspect of the game," said Bettman.
Even still, the idea of trying to regulate fighting seems to be gaining more acceptance. Consider that league disciplinarian Colin Campbell made headlines in March 2007 by merely suggesting it might be time to "ask the question" about whether fighting belongs in hockey.
There's going to be more than questions asked now.
"Issues that are important, that people raise concerns about, are always worth talking about," said Bettman.
The impetus for change came when Ontario senior men's league player Don Sanderson fell into a coma after striking his head on the ice during a fight and later died. It was further reinforced on Friday night when AHLer Garrett Klotz suffered a seizure and was taken from the ice on a stretcher after a fight.
The Ontario Hockey League has already taken a stance on the issue and mandated that its players keep their helmets on during fights.
That will be among the many things the NHL considers as it moves forward. The league doesn't feel its ready to make any changes at this point because it hasn't studied the issue close enough.
Campbell is a former NHL player and noted that fighting has evolved over the years. He dismisses the notion that players did a better job of policing themselves in the past through fighting.
"That's a crock," he said. "I played so I can tell you - you never saw a lot of what went on then. You feared a lot of nights for your life. There was some tough situations out there and there were a lot of inequities back then on toughness and no toughness.
"Over time, the league has done a good job of cleaning up (the game)."
The next step in doing that could happen as soon as next season with a change to what is permitted during a fight.
However, Bettman was quick to note that rule changes require a majority vote and fighting is "a subject that there's no unanimity of view on."
That much has been evident during the all-star weekend as a range of opinions have been expressed. The majority of players seem to support it.
"I think it helps police the game," said Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla. "You're a lot more responsible for what you do out there as far as dirty hits, stickwork and stuff. If you know that fighting's there or the threat of it, you have to back up what you're doing.
"Without it, you've have a lot more stickwork, running around and potentially a lot more dirty hits."
One area of agreement across the board is that the safety of players is most important.
"When you have a tough sport, let's face facts, there's violence involved," said St. Louis Blues president John Davidson. "So you try to make it as safe as possible for the ones that are out there being the warriors."
It's no easy task.
"There's nothing black and white here," said Davidson.
Bettman should be painfully aware of that by now.
He and the NHL governors met Saturday in the same hotel where he held his first official press conference as commissioner shortly after accepting the job in February 1993. Then, as now, he was asked to weigh in on fighting and delivered an answer that still seems relevant today.
"I think our particular problem is that it's an ongoing debate," Bettman said at the time. "We need to come to rest on the issue."