No easy answer to ending fighting
Steve Simmons, QMI Agency
|Maple Leafs' forward Colton Orr (left) and Anaheim Duck's forward George Parros square up last season. Orr later suffered a concussion at the hands of Parros. (AFP)
You don’t begin to eliminate fighting in the National Hockey League just because Wade Belak and Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard are dead.
You don’t begin to eliminate it because Bob Probert is gone and Chris Nilan and Todd Fedoruk and so many others have been dangerously hooked on painkillers and John Kordic died way too soon.
You don’t begin to eliminate fighting in hockey because Reggie Fleming’s brain was full of dementia and Don Sanderson lapsed from coma to death, Jeff Beukeboom still has headaches from a sucker punch 11 years after his final game and concussions are rampant.
But when you take stock of the long list of cumulative victims, of the dead, the nearly dead, the damaged, the disfigured, the addicts, the silent sufferers, the tragedies and you wonder, what will it wake — and better yet, who will it take, to rid hockey of fighting?
There will have to be a leader, a strong voice, someone within the game bright enough, modern enough, to stand up to the barrage of internal and external criticism he will take for his unpopular stance. Will it be an owner? Will it a general manager? We know this much: It won’t be commissioner Gary Bettman. And it’s highly unlikely to be the Players’ Association head, Donald Fehr. And you know, understanding his view on fighting, this will not be Brian Burke’s platform.
So who then?
Ken Holland thinks the time is right to address where fighting fits within the current NHL game — maybe make some changes — but he’s not about to become the anti-fighting crusader. Like so many general managers today, he sees a place for fighting in the game, just a lesser role, a reduced role.
And he sees no role at all for the designated enforcer — the Boogaard type — who offers little in the way of skills, skating or scoring.
“Do I want to put it (fighting) on the agenda?” asked Holland, the highly regarded GM of the Detroit Red Wings. “I’m sure at some point soon there’s going to be conversations at the GM level, ownership level, about the role of fighting is, and do we allow it, how do we allow it, how do we penalize it? All of that going forward.
“To me, things evolve. You look at life in general. It’s hard to be ahead of the curve on every issue known to mankind. I think the role of fighting is diminishing in our game. Is it diminishing as fast as people would like it to? Probably not. I’m sure we’re going to have a conversation about that. I just can’t say what that conversation will be.
“I don’t think that all of a sudden we’re going to come up with a rule to ban fighting. That may be a conversation down the road, but is it down the road this winter? I don’t think so. You think of how our game has evolved and where we’re at and fighting is tracking and trending downwards.
I don’t think if you took fighting out of the game it would have any affect on our team, Vancouver, Boston, and a lot of other teams. It wouldn’t affect how we play.
“I think the game we’ve got today in relation to five years ago, before the lockout, has evolved greatly. There’s more scoring chances, more lead changes, a faster pace, a more physical game, and statistically there’s been less fighting. I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
Just not fast enough, however.
In a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, old school Harry Sinden, general manager of the Big Bad Bruins of the 70s, had a remarkably enlightened view of the issue. “If the wise men of today sat down and started a brand new hockey league, they wouldn’t include fighting,” Sinden told Eric Duhatschek. “They wouldn’t start off by saying, ‘Let’s let everybody fight and just give them a five-minute major.’ It wouldn’t fit today.
“How you ever get it out entirely, I don’t know, but they have opportunities to adjust things so these goons — and people who are only in the game to fight — could be limited and slowed down. That they could do.”
That Holland agrees with.
But under the current discomfort of this tragic summer this is a hot button topic that general managers and league executives would rather avoid for public consumption.
“The role of fighting in our game has become less and less important,” said Holland. “There’s more physical play and less fighting. I want to see better speed and skill. In the playoffs, how often do you see a fight? Now, the way I look at it, with so much competition and so much at stake, the playoffs begin on October 4. With every point being so valuable, you can’t afford having players who can fight and not do anything else. I think those days are gone.”