SUN Hockey Pool

Debate over fighting must continue

Certainly there is enough evidence about the long-term effects of concussions to warrant a...

Certainly there is enough evidence about the long-term effects of concussions to warrant a discussion about the future of fighting in the NHL. (Laura Pedersen/QMI Agency)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:35 PM ET

It happens just about every year.

At some point in the season, somebody wonders why we still have fighting in the NHL, why we still have fighting in hockey.

Given the events of this summer, the discussion will no doubt be ratcheted up in the coming months.

Certainly there should not be a rush to judgement about fighting because of the sad deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, three players who fought for a living in the NHL and all had their lives come to a premature end this summer.

Making a connection between the types of players they were and the way in which their lives came to an end is a premature conclusion.

Even without the questions raised this summer, certainly there is enough evidence about the long-term effects of concussions to warrant a discussion about the future of fighting in the NHL and, as a result, all other levels of the game.

I had always been a guy who enjoyed a good scrap and there was a time when I believed the presence of a tough guy in the lineup did serve as a deterrent to the other team's knuckleheads doing something stupid.

But it has become increasingly difficult to defend that position as the game has evolved. The instigator rule greatly diminished the potential for retribution. (Just as an aside: there was also the argument out there that without enforcers or fighting, we would see a lot more stickwork. Turns out the NHL cut way down on stickwork and all it took was calling the rules in the rule book. Funny how that happened).

The pressing issue for the NHL right now is blows to the head. The presence of a tough guy and the threat of retribution certainly doesn't appear to have deterred the so-called "energy guys," or anybody else for that matter, from hitting people in the head.

I think back to the whole situation surrounding the Matt Cooke-Marc Savard incident. Cooke concusses Savard and anticipation of payback is high for the rematch between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins in March.

So what happens? Cooke "fights" Bruins tough guy Shawn Thornton, who was clearly antagonized (not with Cooke, but by the incessant questioning in the run-up to the game). Afterward, everybody says Cooke stood up and took his punishment, honoured "the code," and moved on.

Did that do anything to change the way Cooke plays?

Cooke was suspended for the rest of the season and the first round of the playoffs last March after targeting the head of New York Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh.

The thing that seems to have encouraged Cooke to think differently about hitting people in the head was the strong admonishment from his own general manager, Ray Shero.

The ever-increasing body of evidence about the long-term implications of concussions and the NHL's and NHLPA's expanding the scope of Rule 48 for this season to incorporate a wider array of headshots (not just lateral and blindside hits) just doesn't square with two guys -- two really, really big guys -- hitting each other in their heads with their fists and then just sitting for five minutes.

We're talking about those staged types of fights here, the type two tough guys have basically to justify their existence and their paycheques and have little connection with anything that's going on in the game in which they are kind of playing.

It's looking increasingly difficult for the NHL to justify that type of fighting anymore, if only for no other reason than the threat of concussion. (We're not connecting dots here, either, in terms of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak being fighters. There needs to be some serious investigation into each of their cases before any assumptions about there being a connection between them being fighters and their deaths are made.)

Given the concern for brain injuries, continuing to accept two guys hitting each other in the head in a staged fight would seem at this point to be a contradiction (a 10-minute misconduct for a "staged" fight is hardly a deterrent; there's too many ways for players to get around it).

The NHL is the only league among the major North American sports leagues that allows its players to fight and remain in the game.

I don't think that's going to change any time soon. There is always going to be the concern, if there was automatic game misconduct attached to a fighting major, that a top player could be goaded into a scrap by a less valuable player on the other team and both would be gone for the rest of the night.

But it's possible there could be a day where there would be a sliding scale attached to fighting majors. Maybe the first or second could be freebies, but for each one after that, a player would incur a game misconduct or have an automatic suspension incurred at certain thresholds.

That would still allow for the spontaneous scrap many in the NHL still feel has a place in the game, but would perhaps give pause to the serial offenders. That would seem to be a simple compromise for now as we continue down a road that I think will ultimately see fighting in the NHL treated as it is in the other major sports. The momentum seems to be building -- at least outside the NHL -- for change.

But when it comes to the NHL and its relationship with fighting, the way fighting is perceived inside and outside the league, we have learned and will continue to see there is never anything simple about it.

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