"For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction" -- Sir Isaac Newton
PHILADELPHIA -- Since Todd Fedoruk's fifteen minutes of fame is about to expire (and with apologies to Anaheim Ducks general manager Brian Burke, who felt that one player shouldn't evoke such a protracted debate), there remain a few things that need to be said.
When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told the Canadian Press last week that "the discussion that we've been having is about player safety and injuries" was that simply the politically-correct, high road?
If safety was the primary issue, then the NHL and the Players' Association would mandate the use of visors, helmets would offer more protection, and elbow and shoulder pads would be re-engineered to maximize protection while minimizing opponent injury.
That's not the case--since we've seen more than a few players suffer concussions without fighting, as well as free-flowing blood from a deflected puck or an inadvertent high stick.
So should the recent flurry of fallen warriors re-ignite the discussion to ban fighting?
"Personally, I don't think so," said Tim Hunter, a former NHL enforcer and current assistant coach with the San Jose Sharks. "We're talking about one player (Fedoruk) and his two incidents this season. I honestly don't see what the uproar is about. Perhaps Fedoruk should be a better fighter--if he were, we wouldn't be talking about this," offered Hunter.
"I haven't seen (Colton) Orr or (Derek) Boogaard knock a lot of guys out in their (respective) careers. So are we talking about fighting or a player's style of fighting?"
Considered to be the best technical fighter of all-time, Hunter simply states that, "if you're a professional boxer and you keep getting knocked out, then you're not going to get a shot at the (championship) belt. You can't leave yourself exposed to get hurt," Hunter said, then pointing out that "in my 16 years of playing in the NHL, I never had a concussion and they never had to cart me off on a stretcher at the end of the night."
"We need to address three incidents where players failed to protect themselves: the Fedoruk fight with Derek Boogaard (Minnesota Wild), the Fedoruk-Orr fight, and the fight between Jon Sim (Atlanta Thrashers) and Mark Bell (San Jose Sharks)--Bell refused to drop his gloves with Sim three or four times in that game, finally they went, and Bell popped (Sim) in the face and broke his orbital bone--it's a situation where (Sim) should know better. I never went into a fight to trade punches because I didn't want to be stretched out on the ice," Hunter said.
Despite his size (6-3, 220 pounds), Orr spent three seasons under the tutelage of Doug Smith, co-author of the book: "Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey."
Smith didn't skate until the age of 19, but he had one desirable talent--he was an amateur fighter of Gold Gloves pedigree. Now serving as a consultant with the Boston Bruins organisation, Smith teaches "defencive fighting" a tactic that Smith feels will prevent the injuries that Hunter speaks of.
"Since there is virtually no fighting in U.S. college hockey or in Europe, most players (in the AHL and NHL) do not know how to defend themselves when a scrum breaks out."
In addition to Orr, Smith has worked with current American Hockey League players like Aaron Downey (Providence), all-time PIM leader Dennis Bonvie (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton), and Portland's Trevor Gillies (21 PIM in his only NHL contest), along with current NHLers Andre Roy (Tampa Bay) and Wade Belak (Toronto). Smith also schooled former P-Bruins puncher Doug Doull on the fine art of fighting.
The Boston Bruins aren't the only team to school their players on fighting.
"Every team has someone in their organisation to teach players how to fight, to learn self-defence, how to throw a punch properly, and how to take a punch," said Hunter.
"When I was with the Calgary Flames, there were a few of us who trained with boxer Willie DeWitt (who went on to win the Heavyweight silver medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics)," Hunter said. "I remember guys like Doug Risebrough, Jim Peplinski, and Paul Reinhart working out using the heavy bag, the speed bag, and some sparring."
In a move that would appease both a fan base opposed to fighting and those who consider it part of the game, Hunter would like to "completely eliminate hits to the head, hits from behind, the vicious stick incidents, and guys getting rammed into the boards--if the league was able to accomplish that, we wouldn't be having this discussion about fighting. What's really dangerous is that there are four or five guys in the NHL who are 6-5 or above banging guys with shoulder-to-head hits or hitting guys from behind."
That's not meant to imply that only the giants are guilty of dirty play.
"It's human nature--guys are going to see what they can get away with," said Hunter, who sees a problem with the fact that shoulder-to-head hits "aren't called during the game but then the league turns around and penalizes the player two days later. Both the NHL and the NHLPA have to get on board and fix this."
Another area to address is the "staged fighting" between opposing NHL heavyweights.
"How many times did (former Montreal Canadiens enforcer) John Ferguson fight in a season," asked Hunter. "Five times was a big year for him."
"How many times are guys fighting now? I've never been a proponent of 'staged' fighting"--such as the scenario played out by Orr and Fedoruk. Their now-infamous fight was in response to an earlier Philadelphia-New York tilt where Fedoruk and Flyers' teammate Ben Eager seemingly made contact with Jaromir Jagr every time the Ranger hit the ice.
Such battles "don't accomplish anything, and too many times you're not doing yourself or your team a favor," Hunter said. Serge Roberge, a former minor-league brawler asks, "How can you be mad just 20 seconds into the hockey game when nothing has happened yet? Fighting is there to get respect, not just for show."
Another dissident of staged fighting is Ottawa Senators scout Lew Mongelluzzo.
Weaned on the "Broad Street Bullies" of the early 1970's, Mongelluzzo definitely saw his share of fighting at the Spectrum, the former home of the Flyers, and agrees that "staged fighting" will be a thing of the past.
"We have a game of high skill and high speed that is played 'on the edge,'" said Mongelluzzo. As a result, there will always be instances of what he calls "spontaneous combustion"--an immediate reaction to an opponent's action. He goes as far as saying that fighting in such situations is "one of the things that make the game of hockey unique." That being said, Mongelluzzo stresses that "there should not be a rush to judgment since fighting has diminished to some degree in today's game and will continue to do so."
The one-dimensional NHL heavyweight according to Mongelluzzo "will then be a dinosaur in a short period of time. Remember, boxing is a skill, fighting on ice is not a skill. It's a part of the game as it has been for decades, and it's a part of the game that we will ultimately learn to do without."
Mongelluzzo quickly pointed out that he's not ready to abolish fighting altogether, but he does see the heavyweight being replaced by players such as Brenden Morrow (Dallas Stars) or Chris Neil (Ottawa Senators)--"guys who can be a major contributor for their team and can also become premium fighters."
When Mongelluzzo questions whether teams will be able to carry "heavyweights" on the roster due to their limited contributions, Hunter points out that teams like the Los Angeles Kings "can afford to let players like Raitis Ivanans and live with his mistakes" in what looks like a non-playoff year.
Still, Mongelluzzo asks, "if fighting has not drawn more fans to the sport, why is there a concern that no fighting will draw fewer fans?"
Among the potentially-dangerous aspects of the game that Hunter would like to see policed are "slew-footing, spearing, and the subtle, one-handed slashing that occurs on a routine basis."
"Eliminate the instigator penalty--it's the only way to make players accountable (on the ice) for their actions," said Hunter. "Otherwise, go out and slash the guy and get two minutes in the penalty box."
Agreeing with Hunter is Pittsburgh Penguin Georges Laraque, listed (generously) at 6-3, 230-pounds.
Today's players know that in the "new NHL" they're not going to be held accountable on the ice. "In the past, you had to back up your actions if you ran a player," said Laraque. "The instigator rule has taken accountability out of the game."
"How many times have you seen (a player knocked out during a hockey fight)?" asks Laraque. "Exactly."
"Now how many times have you seen a serious injury as the result of a stick or a body check? So, if the NHL wants to clean up the league, what should they look at?"
"You definitely see players getting sucker-punched or getting jumped more frequently in today's game," said Smith.
Laraque believes that people are going to talk about the "dirty stuff"--actions with the deliberate intention to injure a player--in the same sentence as fighting, and feels that the NHL should focus on "getting (stick infractions and illegal hits) out of the game."
And for one more nugget to ponder, the Associated Press ran this quote from a staff writer: "To others in the mainstream sports scene, (fighting) is an antiquated act of foolishness -- merely a sideshow that caters to the same group of people who watch auto racing with the hopes of seeing a fiery crash."
Last time I looked, NASCAR had a larger fan base, a national television contract, and a significant corporate sponsorship package...three things surely on Bettman's Christmas list.
David Unkle can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org