The Impossible Debate On Fighting In The NHL: How The Powers At Hand Can Advance The Game

Fighting in the NHL can be compared to the old Miller “Lite” beer commercials that debated “Tastes Great!/Less Filling!” on television before many of us could legally drink beer. Those commercials were marketing genius, but the debate is pretty much moot. Certain people will drink low-calorie beer because they think it will prevent them from blowing up like parade floats. Others will drink full-calorie beer – damn the torpedoes and the bloat. That’s how many feel about fighting in hockey; some are willing to tolerate the low-cal version, while others will never be satisfied unless it’s full-steam ahead.

The debate about fighting has raged on for decades. The fans love it; ask anyone who has grown up rooting for the Philadelphia Flyers, and the first thing they’ll likely mention is the team’s reputation as the “Broad Street Bullies.” The media, however, remains split on the topic. Former players turned television analysts will say the game needs to be self-policing, therefore, fighting needs to exist. Commentators who never played the game will argue that fighting has become too dangerous; another by-product of the players being bigger and stronger, and the equipment morphing into body armor.

The NHL has attempted to regulate fighting over the years with some degree of success. It outlawed bench-clearing brawls almost 30 years ago, amending the rule book, and imposing $10,000 fines on any players leaving the bench for the express purpose of fighting. That solved that problem. Then, in 1992, it decided to update and enforce the long-standing “Instigator” rule, which caused the virtual extinction of the enforcer. That’s not to say the game is completely devoid of pugilism; players still drop their gloves (and remove their visor-ed helmets) on a regular basis, but in total, fighting continues to decline with each passing season (down 40% from the same period a year ago). Unfortunately, the drop in glove-dropping has lead to more problems the league needs to address.

In lieu of fisticuffs, checking has become downright life-threatening, especially along the boards. Players think nothing of slamming each other off the dashers, and mid-ice collisions – any player who makes the mistake of skating through center ice with his head down has a death wish. Fighting might be down, but the number of times a stretcher has to be brought onto the ice to remove a semi-conscious player has increased exponentially.

And then there are the concussions. How many careers have been cut short because some of the players can’t tolerate the level of hitting that has become the norm? Too many to mention, unfortunately. The Lindros brothers – Eric and Brett, both had noggin issues during their careers, so did Paul Kariya, Doug Gilmour, Cam Neely, Peter Forsberg, Pavel Bure, Rick DiPietro, Scott Stevens, and so many others.

Then, there is the recent spate of suicides: Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak, Todd Ewen, and Rick Rypien all took their lives, leaving behind little evidence but tons of speculation pointing to the likelihood of brain issues that went undetected during their lives.

Just as disturbing is the death of Bob Probert in 2010 at age 45, of a heart attack. Probert’s family donated his brain to the Sports Legacy Institute, where researchers found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that cannot be diagnosed while a person is alive but after death, has been found in former athletes who likely suffered many concussions during their careers that were ignored or never properly diagnosed. An alarming number of brains of deceased NFL players have shown evidence of CTE, and it is almost a certainty that a good many NHL players are similarly afflicted.

There is a school of thought regarding fighting that seems to make the most sense, and that is throwing out the Instigator rule. I agree with the theory that giving the players the ability to police themselves might be the most effective way to cut down on the number of career-threatening injuries today’s players are exposed to. We’re only two months into the 2015-16 season, and already we’ve seen top rookie Connor McDavid go down with a broken collarbone, and Sidney Crosby get off to the worst start of his career. The alarmist Canadian media thinks that “Sid the Kid”, at 28, might already be on the downside of his career. Maybe his game does need some tweaking, but it’s hard not to think about whether or not the concussions he’s suffered aren’t partially to blame for his slowdown.

If you need proof of how effective enforcers were during their heyday, take a look at the stats of the game’s most prolific scorers: Wayne Gretzky had Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley protecting him during his best years. Mike Bossy had Bobby Nystrom and Clark Gillies watching his back. Steve Yzerman had Probert and Joe Kocur. Maybe if Crosby had a designated enforcer lurking on the bench, guys like Brandon Dubinsky would think twice before cross-checking him to the back of the neck or breaking a stick over his back. A one-game suspension for that type of behavior is a joke.

hanson_brothers
The Hanson brothers from the movie “Slapshot.”

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the injury problem currently plaguing the NHL, but there are ways to address it. I’ve said that we need to move past the game of yesteryear and embrace the game the way it is currently played. I still feel that way, but one thing today’s players need to understand is that they need to try harder to respect each other as people.

The guys who played the enforcer role were respected; you’d have to have been a textbook masochist to want to take a beating from one of them, but it was an important role. Fighting for the sake of fighting has no place in hockey yet neither does the cheap-shot crap that currently dominates play. If the NHL wasn’t so afraid of showing the world what a great game hockey is, the league would come down much harder on guys who deliberately try to injure its biggest stars. And it would bring back the enforcer. It, too, is a role capable of adapting to the way today’s game is played.

2 Replies to “The Impossible Debate On Fighting In The NHL: How The Powers At Hand Can Advance The Game”

  1. Did you look up the number of “cheap shots” to offer a fair comparison? I’m not sure there have been more. What has changed is our definition of what a cheap shot is. Take for example Scott Stevens. His two most famous hits ko’d Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya (two players you mentioned). I’m not sure we called them cheap shots back then. Now? They’d warrant a suspension.
    I think what you’re asking for is a greater sense of accountability among the players. They must respect their own health as much as their opponents. Stiffer suspensions is a good start. Taking away roster spots from suspended players would be a good next step (Ie: if a player is suspended 10 games, you couldn’t replace his spot in the lineup).
    The enforcer died two deaths, one by a growing anti-fighting sentiment, another by a faster, more skill-based game. I don’t think teams would be willing to bring it back.

    1. Dillion, maybe the league should start tabulating the number of “cheap shots”, but I think it would first have trouble defining them. I agree that Scott Stevens was a goon on occasion, but what changed my perspective was Dale Hunter’s brutal hit on Pierre Turgeon in the 1993 playoffs. I’ve looked at the replay so many times over the years, and it was clearly obvious he intended to hurt him. Turgeon was never the same player after that, and Hunter’s 20-game suspension was unprecedented at the time. There needs to be more of that type of punishment, and removing the roster spot will make it more impactful.
      I think the enforcer still has a place; Coaches and GMs need to agree on what that role will look like so they can “create” the type of player that will fit the role. The “power forward” position was defined in the late 70s-early 80s by Clark Gillies, but guys like Lindros, Todd Bertuzzi, Joe Thornton, etc. failed to evolve at that position. That legacy is one that needs to be looked at carefully in order to advance the game.

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