Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Fight the Good Fight

Editor's note: This originally ran as this week's Cold As Ice column on Popblerd.

We’re barely a week into the 2013-14 NHL season and already a coach has been fired (the 0-3 Flyers canned Peter Laviolette), a player has been stuck in a Dallas bathroom and the debate over the role of fighting in hockey has once again been renewed.

It didn’t take long for the season’s first shockingly violent moment to occur. Just 2:34 into the third period of last Tuesday’s Leafs-Canadiens game, enforcers Colton Orr and George Parros squared off for the second time that night. But as Toronto’s Orr slipped awkwardly, he pulled Parros down with him and the mustachioed tough guy hit the ice face first, knocking himself unconscious. Orr immediately signaled for the Montreal trainer to get out on the ice as Parros lay motionless. The Montreal crowd went from festive to silent as a bloodied Parros was treated and eventually taken off the ice on a stretcher. Ironically, a similar incident occurred two years ago in a fight between Orr and Parros, with Orr hitting the ice and suffering a season-ending concussion.  

The Parros injury was the catalyst for much discussion about whether fighting truly belonged in the game anymore. The NHL is the only major sport that condones fighting; yes, players are penalized but they’re also allowed to square off without interference until there’s a victor or the fight itself runs out of steam. The league has been trying to address the issue of concussions in the game in recent years by mandating stricter penalties for hits to the head, but obviously, a clear source of head injuries is still plentiful: the punches directed at an opponent’s skull in a fight. 

After the Parros incident (he was released from the hospital the next day, but is unlikely to play again anytime soon), general managers including Steve Yzerman of Tampa, Jim Rutherford of Carolina and Ray Shero of Pittsburgh (whose father Fred coached the Broad Street Bullies back in the day) all called for stricter penalties for fighting. Yzerman said players who fight should be ejected from games instead of simply given five-minute penalties. League officials, however, say no changes are planned at this time.

Defenders of fighting note that having a tough guy on a team provides protection to the more skilled players and often can provide a spark when a team is down. There’s no denying the fans in an arena get fired up when there’s a scrap on the ice. And of course, the NHL Players Association doesn’t want to see so-called enforcers lose their jobs if there’s a ban on fighting.

Certainly, these points have been brought up for decades now. As a kid in suburban Toronto in the 1970s, I remember the Philadelphia Flyers’ reign of terror as the Broad Street Bullies, pummeling their way to back-to-back Stanley Cups. The Flyers and Leafs met in the playoffs three straight years from ’75 to ’77, with bench-clearing brawls and strewn equipment as much a part of the play as goals and assists. I’m old school. I enjoy a good fight as much as the next guy. A fight that breaks out in the heat of a game is exciting. I love movies like “Slap Shot” and “Goon.” 

But I’m losing my patience with the dopey staged fights between goons like Orr and Parros who clearly are on the ice for one reason and one reason only. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, noted fighters like Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, Dave “Tiger” Williams and John Wensink all scored 20 or more goals at least once in their careers; they weren't limited to 3 or 4 minutes of ice time per night, basically wasting a roster spot for the occasional throwdown.

I don’t want to see the game robbed of its toughness and personality and turned into a figure skating competition with sticks. Hitting and, yes, the occasional fight, are as much a part of hockey as speed and skill. (And yes, I enjoy watching Olympic and college hockey, where fighting is not allowed.) 

But I want to see a return to the days when teams didn’t have to bring out some big stiff like Buffalo’s John Scott or Orr or Parros who brings nothing to the game. Teams like Detroit have been pretty successful for years without a designated enforcer in their lineup. Even teams who play enforcers rarely put them on the ice in important situations late in games or in the playoffs. What does that tell you?

If you’re going to have fighters in the league, let them be big players with skill like Milan Lucic of the Bruins or Evander Kane of the Jets; players who can fight if need be, but are more valuable contributing to their team’s offensive success. Of course, getting the skill level up and the goon quotient down isn’t going to be done via league rule changes. It’s going to take a change in mindset from certain GMs who currently choose to stock their teams with fighters. My favorite team, Toronto, is a prime example. GM Dave Nonis put the team in a serious salary cap crunch by insisting on signing two enforcers (Orr and Frazer McLaren) to two-year deals, which then compromised the Leafs’ ability to sign its talented young players whose contracts were up. Somehow, he managed to do it for this season, but the next offseason will be a difficult one for the Leafs.

Critics argue that the NHL will never have mass popularity while fighting is still allowed in the game. I honestly don’t care about that. Hockey’s ultimately a regional sport; you’re never going to get huge acceptance of it in warm weather areas where people never see ice and I’m okay with that. It’s not about that. The NHL should be the best hockey league in the world with the best players in the world. Goons don’t belong there; let them play in the low minors. Let’s keep the skilled players in the NHL and improve the game for everyone.

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