An Associated Press story picked up by outlets such as CSN Bay Area examined the downward trend of fighting in the modern NHL Monday, Sept. 21. Like it or not, that is going to be the case as a means of pure survival.
Survival of the league from lawsuits, survival by each team needing to add skill to keep up with their opponents and the literal survival of the players getting into the fights. Sorry, but those are more important responsibilities than tradition, the right of someone unable to perform his job well enough to make the NHL any other way or a fan’s vicarious machismo.
Right now, the NFL is still wrestling with a nine-figure court settlement with former players. A growing number of those retirees are literally killing themselves from the long-term effects of head-on collisions. Only the titan of North American sports has any chance to afford that, and the NHL taking action to reduce the risk of brain damage can keep it from such penalties in the future.
That does not mean fighting has to end. There is good cause for dialogue about just where the line needs to be drawn.
For one thing, the problem is much more pervasive in the NFL. Boston University and the Department of Veterans Affairs studied the donated brains of 91 late players and only four did not have signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). However, enforcers are one position in the NHL that does see high probability of brain injury.
The NHL is already evolving, moving away from goons. Like most sports, hockey has become faster with bigger players and is more dangerous that in the past. Safety has become a primary concern, and speeding up the process with a few tweaks—nothing that changes the game—is the right thing to do.
When considered with the extra information known about concussions and CTE, the game has too many other risks to add one more with gratuitous fighting. No more tossing the gloves because your star teammate was run legally, no more “getting the guys going” because your team is down 3-0 and cannot find a way to change momentum within the bounds of competing better during live play.
Legislating only those fights out of the game and any enforcement could be difficult. It may seem easier to ban them entirely—the hard-core fan most offended is the one least likely to leave the game—but that might be just as dangerous as allowing it to continue as it did in the previous millennium.
Sometimes a contest is increasing in intensity and opponents are pushing the envelope, when a fight can help the game settle in before any lines get crossed with more dangerous slashes. Sometimes players like Marty McSorely or Todd Bertuzzi do things so egregious that they have to pay.
So what is the league to do? The first step should be applying the instigator rule the way its name suggests.
A real instigator is not the player that throws off the gloves first. He is often not even fighting. He is the guy that crossed the line enough to warrant a fight.
The 2007 Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks could get away with Corey Perry’s slashing and Chris Pronger’s head hunting because George Parros would always take on the other team’s enforcer. Allowing someone else on the ice to serve a penalty like happens with goalie infractions might encourage a few more players to fight their own battles, but the real solution is to make more calls on the ice and increase discipline for perpetrators that get away with something during the game.
The league needs to discipline the real instigators like Maxim Lapierre rather than the opponent that finally decides he has seen enough teammates exposed to dangerous and dirty play. Players do not try these things in the Olympics because they will be booted and in many cases lose their last chance at a medal. Reviewing video of actions leading up to any incident often makes the instigation apparent.
Increasing discipline for other things can also help (not to mention making it consistent, but that is obviously asking to much!). For Lapierre to get just five games for running Dan Boyle into the boards from behind in 2013 is absurd, and any rule that does not make one of the worst instigators in the game a repeat offender needs to be reevaluated.
On the other side, how about more than a “shame on you” to divers? Every NHL player can dive every two months without losing one entire game’s check. After that, the coach starts to get fined but even a player guilty of this every 10 games would be fined a total of $29,000 (lower than the average player salary for one game) and his coach $19,000.
Like freeway drivers that insist on going the speed limit in fast lanes or slow down all traffic so they can merge late, divers annoy players possessing respect for the game as well as those that as amoral as the instigator. Addressing player safety should start with the players that put that in jeopardy, whether in passive or aggressive ways.
Make punishments higher to decrease the need to fight. Punish those that inspire fighting with reckless or unsportsmanlike play. Call more penalties so teams can retaliate through the power play. Fights will drop dramatically and literally save lives without getting rid of them entirely…then those that really are part of the game will be even more special.