There isn’t a subject in hockey that can split a fan base quite like fighting. There are a ton of questions about whether or not it still belongs in the game. Does it really change momentum? Is there actually a positive impact that comes from two guys pausing a game to drop the mitts and beat the snot out of each other?
The craziest thing about the fighting/no fighting argument is that there is no in-between crowd. If there is, they’re scarce and usually not heard from very often on the topic. Well, I’ll stand up and announce that I’m part of that crowd. I see a lot of value in two players having a spirited bout when emotions run high. What I don’t get is why there are still games being played in the NHL like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers on 1/20/15. With 93 total penalty minutes and an ejection, that wasn’t a hockey game, it was a clown show.
Mad Max took a beating, but shushed the crowd in Philadelphia, literally. At that point in the game the Pittsburgh Penguins were trailing the Flyers 3-0, but scored five straight and eliminated the Flyers from the Playoffs.
There are many players around the league with a knack for knowing when their team needs a spark. Cal Clutterbuck of the Islanders, Milan Lucic of the Bruins, Wayne Simmonds of the Flyers, and Jarret Stoll of the Kings, just to name a few, are all guys that you’ll see bring an edge and stir up trouble. What is different about players like this, though? Well, they contribute to the game beyond fighting. And this season, I’ll even throw Steve Downie on that list. While his timing is normally terrible for when he seeks retribution, you can’t argue that his twenty points and time playing in the top-6 has been impressive, right alongside his league-leading 152 penalty minutes. These guys aren’t considered skill players, although some can argue that Simmonds should be, but they do bring an element of skill with their toughness and edgy play.
Now let’s talk about the Zach Rinaldo’s of the league, and what I refer to when I say “goonery”. The NHL no longer has a place for this kind of player, plain and simple. The game of hockey has become about speed and skill. This is the reason you see much smaller players having successful careers and playing at the professional level for extended periods of time. The NHL’s biggest challenge in this regard is not that it’s refusing to evolve, just that it’s evolving too slowly. Players like Rinaldo, John Scott, Colton Orr, and Mark Frazer should not be welcomed any longer. This doesn’t only fall on the league however, as it’s up to the teams to make these changes as well.
The Pittbsurgh Penguins have made an attempt to rid itself of pure goons. But when your stars are taking beatings and the only person there to stick up for them is Tanner Glass, well, you have no choice but to conform.
What can the league do differently to combat this type of play and the enforcers that carry it out? Is the answer to ban fighting completely? I don’t believe it is. The answer is to rid itself of the unnecessary hits to the head, hits from behind, and intent to injure. The efforts to do so as of late are too soft and unsuccessful. You need to get rid of players that are simply hired hit men, and it all starts with the department of player safety, which I may add employs Chris Pronger….
Stricter, more consistent guidelines will be a major step for the league to right the ship. You can’t waiver from the rules that you have set, and you can’t dance around these issues when certain players commit the crime. These are blanket rules that pertain to everyone who laces them up. You also can’t expect teams to make real changes when players that aren’t important to the overall success of the team are getting suspended for 3-5 games. They don’t care. This is where change on the team’s part comes into play. Why not fine the organization when a player gets suspended for targeting someone’s head? Why aren’t we punishing the very people that are employing these guys? It’s simple, if you start suspending players for 10, 15, even 20 games without pay, you’ll start seeing that they might actually care. When you start punishing the organization, and they have to reach in their wallets to pay substantial fines because their employee is risking the safety of the games true stars, you’ll start seeing that they might actually care. If you suspend a player for 10 games without pay, the team should be fined the amount of that player’s salary over those 10 games, and maybe add a standard disciplinary fine to that so that a player making league minimum will still have a substantial impact on their cash flow.
To a lesser degree, the league needs to make a change to the thugs that are currently hired as network “analysts”. Guys like Mike Milbury, who believe it’s okay for a player to attack an opponent even if said opponent isn’t willing to fight should not be providing analysis on network television. Remember when Shawn Thornton assaulted Brooks Opik? He stated that Orpik should have defended himself for throwing a perfectly clean hit. Yes, they are speaking to fans and not giving players guidance so maybe they don’t have a direct impact on how the game is played. But do you think for a moment that players don’t enjoy being the center of a highlight video while Don Cherry talks about “old time hockey” and making guys pay the hard price?
There is a difference between fighting in hockey and allowing goons to ruin the sport. There are clear examples of fighting in certain situations that gets a team amped up and can turn the tide. There are examples of a fight simply being a case of flared tempers in a very intense, physical game. Sidney Crosby and Matt Niskanen in 2010, before Niskanen was a Pittsburgh Penguin for instance. I welcome that stuff. I think it adds to the excitement and it’s clear that the players share the same intensity as the fans watching. But careless intent to injure, meaningless headshots, and hits from behind need to go. When you remove these players you will in turn remove senseless, staged fights. You will also no longer have players bragging to the media that injuring a player by hitting them between the numbers changed the game, and possibly changed the season for their team. I’m looking at you Mr. Rinaldo, and NHL Player safety to finally get something right.