Dustup beefs up interest

TIM DAHLBERG

, Last Updated: 11:04 AM ET

Nothing like a little blood on the ice to get people in the U.S. to start paying attention to hockey again.

Chris Drury left some there the other night in Buffalo, his forehead split open after a blindside cheap shot from Ottawa's Chris Neil. Buffalo's leading scorer got a concussion that will keep him out for a while.

Neil got nothing, not even a penalty. Actually, he got indignant when it was suggested the hit might have been out of line.

Pretty soon 12 different players were squaring off and fighting. As an added attraction on the undercard, the goalies even took off gloves and masks and tossed punches at each other.

The fans, of course, loved it. So did the TV announcer, who seemed almost giddy about the prospect someone might forget going for another Molson and could actually be watching. "Is there anything better than a good goaltending fight?" he asked.

Sure there is. How about the coaches duking it out? Yes, that was 64-year-old Bryan Murray, two days removed from celebrating his 600th career win, standing on top of the boards threatening to trade punches with Buffalo's Lindy Ruff.

Ah, hockey, you gotta love it. Fastest sport on ice.

Until the minute they drop the gloves, that is. Then they look like girls at a slumber party flailing away at each other with pillows.

The fights themselves are choreographed better than WWE matches. Even the refs get into the act, watching the players fight until fans have their fill, then making an often-comic effort to reach in and break things up.

People sure seem to like it, though. Go to any NHL game and the buzz level picks up quickly when players start throwing down.

Which may be why, two days before the melee in Buffalo, NHL GMs voted to recommend loosening the sanctions against goons who start most of the fights.

Instead of being suspended for two games after their third instigator penalty, they wouldn't be suspended until getting five fight-starting calls.

With U.S. TV ratings sinking faster than Britney Spears' Q rating, this is a league that needs all the help it can get.

Its all-star game last month on a channel named Versus drew a paltry 691,000 households, about a tenth of what the game got 11 years ago when it was on Fox. A lacrosse game drew more viewers one night a few weeks ago in New York than the Islanders did.

While 18,136 fans watched in person in Florida last month, only 736 out of nearly 7.4 million households in the New York area tuned in to see the Devils play the Panthers.

Forget the new uniforms the NHL is debuting next year, or the new rules that were supposed to draw fans back.

Give us Bob Arum or Don King, pairing up fighters and making sure everyone knows how to tell the difference between goons and stars.

Fighting, of course, is a time-honoured tradition in the NHL, though new rules designed to penalize the worst troublemakers caused the number of bouts to drop last year by about a quarter.

They're back up to normal levels this season, though, and nearly every team has a player it sends out when it wants to send a message. Relaxing the rules so goons can carry out their enforcement more easily would send a message that the NHL isn't really serious about cutting down on violence in the sport.

Then again, it might do something the NHL needs even more desperately than a new image. It might get a few more Americans watching.


Videos

Photos