The young 2013-14 season has been a disastrous one for hockey’s fighting apologists. It brought with it three maligned rule changes: the effective death of sweater tucks, hybrid icing — which many believed would never make it out of preseason, but lo and behold — and a minor penalty for pre-fight helmet removal. The latter served as a particularly vociferous call to arms for hockey purists. “They’re trying to take fighting out of hockey!” they roared. “They’ll make it harder and harder to fight until they discourage it altogether.”
Paranoia like theirs is often brought on by copious amounts of THC and marked by a distrust in what “They” are up to.
When Brett Gallant of the New York Islanders and Krys Barch of the New Jersey Devils removed each other’s helmet prior to the second of their three scraps in a Sept. 19 game, the entire league laughed at gaping loophole exposed in the new provision. Vetted by the National Hockey League’s ombudsmen and seemingly torn asunder by two Metropolitan Division goons, the helmet rule was the laughing stock of the new season.
Then Montreal’s George Parros smacked his bare head off the ice face-first after Toronto’s Colton Orr knocked him out. The rationale behind the rule became apparent as they carried Parros off the ice on a stretch — much like how they carted Orr off after a 2011 scrap with Parros resulted in the outcome, but reversed.
Then the laughing stopped.
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During a Nov. 1 tilt between the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals, a line brawl erupted after the Caps improved their lead to 7-0. The crown jewel of the yard sale worth 154 penalty minutes altogether was the fight between goaltenders Ray Emery and Braden Holtby. “Fight” is a loose term here, as it was more or less Emery raining fists upon a flailing, unwilling Holtby as the latter, still wearing his blocker and glove, grasped for the boards, a referee — anything to stop the fight he never wished to enter in the first place.
Emery received 29 penalty minutes that night, including a 10-minute game misconduct. Though he did not receive supplementary disciplinary action, Emery did spark a conversation between the league’s 30 general managers on banning goalie fights once and for all. The men will discuss the matter further next year during a March retreat in Boca Raton, Fla., much to the chagrin of utterly shellacked goaltender, Braden Holtby.
“I don’t even understand the logistics behind what they’re trying to do with taking goalie fights out,” Holtby told the Washington Post ahead of the teams’ first meeting since the free-for-all Tuesday. “You’re a player, you should be treated as one that way. What happened between myself and Ray Emery had nothing to do with goalies. That was more just an overall hockey problem not a goalie problem.”
An overall hockey problem. Does he mean fighting?
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In the opening minute of a Dec. 7 meeting between newly and exceedingly bitter rivals Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins, Penguins alternate captain Brooks Oprik leveled a puckless Loui Eriksson with a heavy that left the Bruins winger severely concussed. Enforcer Shawn Thornton challenged Orpik to a fight, but Orpik was simply not interested. Later in the first period, Pittsburgh’s James Neal delivered a deliberate knee to the head of Brad Marchand as he tried returning to his feet following a trip courtesy of Sidney Crosby. Neal’s hit earned him a five-game suspension, setting precedent for the suspension his teammate Deryk Engelland received for a blatant elbow to Justin Abdelkader’s head.
The refs at TD Garden finally lost all control at 12:22 as tempers boiled over, and Thornton hustled over to a cluster of Penguins players. He threw Orpik to the ice, dealt two punches to the defenseman as he lay on the ice and skated away, down the tunnel, where he would stay for the remainder of the game. Orpik was placed on a stretcher and taken to a Boston hospital, where he was diagnosed with a concussion, matching Eriksson’s.
Thornton’s excessive display of protecting his teammates, magnified by the audience garnered by a match-up between the Eastern Conference top two teams, sparked the tired discourse once again: does fighting have a place in hockey anymore?
Hockey Hall of Fame writer Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe and Adam Proteau of the Hockey News famously say, “Of course not.” The league’s players and top officials almost unanimously defend it, and they are joined by the beer-swigging masses of the balcony levels of arenas across North America. But can this issue at the heart of this sport truly be cut along such rudimentary lines as the hockey intelligentsia versus the common man?
Hockey does not have a fighting problem. Fighting is a deterrent, a preventative medicine. Of course, any medicine in excessive amounts is poison. Fighting serves a clear purpose in hockey. It keeps players accountable for their actions on the ice and acts as a safety valve, allowing steam to escape once the pressure grows too intense.
Had Orpik fought Thornton immediately after taking Eriksson out of commission, there would be no further incidents later in the period, and Thornton would not find himself in the midst of an appeals process for his 15-game suspension. Regardless of intent, Orpik took out a Bruin, plain and simple. In the moments immediately following the hit, he needed to be held accountable for his actions. But thanks to the league’s new two-minute minor for instigation, Orpik did not have to fight. And why should he? When earning a power play for your team is as easy as keeping your gloves on when challenged to a fight, what incentive is there for responsibility?
The instigator minor encourages cowardliness and breeds a dangerous culture of unanswered cheap shots and league-sanctioned spinelessness. Conversely, it discourages enforcers from doing their job and acting as on-ice regulators. Fighting brings hockey down, makes it uncivilized, you say? No, fighting maintains this sport’s civility.
Hockey’s true problem is a profound lack of respect between its players. There appears to be a breach in the social contract. As a result, you get gruesome knee-on-knee hits like Dustin Brown’s on Tomas Hertl, a early favorite for the Calder Trophy; Dion Phaneuf’s egregious boarding of Kevan Miller, a young defenseman with promise; Jared Cowan’s concussion-inducing elbow to the jaw of Pavel Datsyuk, one of the greatest, most electrifying two-way players of this generation. These do not regulate the game. They can never add to the game either — only subtract, robbing from us rising stars and dazzling talent before it has a chance to blossom.
This places the onus on NHL Players Association president Don Fehr. He must control his players and, in the simplest of terms, tell them to quit killing each other out there. Civility must start with the players, not a mandate or threat of suspension handed down from the Board of Governors. There must be a mutual understanding brought about by the Players Association to keep the hits clean and establish that predatory behavior has no place in this league.
The health of the NHL depends heavily on the health of its players. How long will it take until the Players Association addresses hockey’s problem — a players problem? When Patrick Kane’s knee gets spectacularly blown out? When Sidney Crosby suffers yet another concussion? When Alexander Ovechkin’s head more closely resembles a Voit kickball? The league has yearned for a superstar system for some time now to coincide with its rapid expansion. It would behoove Gary Bettman and company to insure those superstars are healthy, not hunted, in the first place.
Unless Fehr acts, the injuries incurred by this dearth of respect will eat away at this league from the inside, out. But for goodness’ sake, don’t banish the watchmen.