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NHL players insist fighting still has a place in hockey

BrandBollig Michal Cajkovsky

Brandon Bollig, Michal Cajkovsky

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Updated: November 5, 2013 6:37AM



Two minutes into a Feb. 7 game in Phoenix, Blackhawks veteran Jamal Mayers leaned over the bench and started yelling at Raffi Torres, the man whose dirty, high hit had given Marian Hossa a severe concussion and knocked him out of the playoffs the previous spring.

Mayers was challenging Torres to a fight, and Torres — knowing full well what was coming — quickly accepted. Mayers hopped over the boards, the two went at it, each landed a few decent right hands, and just like that — after nearly 10 months of stewing, of seething, of dreaming of vengeance — it was over. In 17 seconds. The Hawks didn’t spend the rest of the game hounding Torres and delivering cheap shots, and Torres didn’t spend the rest of the game looking over his shoulder. The book had been closed on the Raffi Torres Incident for good.

“That’s definitely where fighting has a place in the game,” Hawks enforcer Brandon Bollig said. “You have to keep guys honest and hold guys accountable.”

Did the fight erase Hossa’s grueling, seven-month recovery? No. Did it make up for the Hawks’ first-round loss to Phoenix? No. Did Torres suffer anything close to what Hossa did? No. Did the fight accomplish anything?

Yes.

It prevented a much worse, much more dangerous form of retaliation. Because while fighting is dumb, vigilante justice is a whole lot dumber. And that’s what players insist would happen if fighting is removed from hockey.

“I don’t think you can ever get rid of it,” Hawks center and occasional scrapper Andrew Shaw said. “Then you’ve got guys running around doing whatever they want. You need it in there. … If you got rid of fighting, there would be more injuries in hockey.”

The long-simmering debate over fighting boiled over Tuesday night when Montreal’s George Parros — the tough guy known as much for his Princeton education and his mustache as his goonery — knocked himself out cold by face-planting on the ice during a fight against Toronto’s Colton Orr. Parros was taken off on a stretcher and was fortunate to be diagnosed with only a concussion.

In the wake of the scary incident, a few general managers — including Pittsburgh’s Ray Shero, Carolina’s Jim Rutherford and Tampa Bay’s Steve Yzerman — told TSN that the league should take steps to eliminate fighting, particularly in light of the recent efforts to curtail head injuries and improve player safety. Hawks special advisor Scotty Bowman even tweeted his agreement.

And yes, in an ideal world, there would be no need for fighting in hockey. Penalties and suspensions would be a big enough deterrent to dirty play, and would be seen as sufficient punishment by the teammates of those who are cheap-shotted. But that’s not the world in which hockey players live. They were raised in a culture of The Code, and of “sticking up” for a teammate, and of “answering the bell” for your actions.

An NHLPA/CBC poll conducted in 2011-12 found that 98 percent of players were against banishing fighting. Ninety-eight percent. Some of that has to do with protecting the jobs of the likes of John Scott and Parros. But most of that’s simply the ingrained culture of the sport. To players, fighting is as much a part of the game as faceoffs. You can’t change that overnight. It’s going to take generations to get past that.

Yzerman’s concerns ring particularly hollow, given how glad he was to have legendary enforcer Bob Probert watching his back in Detroit. Yzerman rarely had to worry about being touched, because Probert was always lurking. At the very least, opponents would think twice before taking a run at him.

“That’s where fighting comes in, where you want to stick up for your teammates and you want to have tough guys who protect you so you’re not getting run out of the building every night,” Hawks star Patrick Kane said. “If you take it completely out of the game, and they don’t have to think twice about hitting skilled guys because they know they won’t have to fight someone, there’s no [price] for a cheap hit.”

There’s no easy answer. Yzerman proposed game-misconduct penalties (ejections) for all fights, but all that would do is embolden and encourage goons to try to goad star players into fights to take them out of the game. Full-blown suspensions for simple fights would effectively end fighting, but would lead to vigilante justice and serious injuries caused by guys hell-bent on defending their teammates in other ways.

What the NHL needs to do is get rid of the useless fights — the staged ones at face-offs, the forced ones during blowouts, the ones where all a guy is trying to do is wake up a sleepy bench or a bored crowd. Players and fans might like those — as Kane put it, “From a fan’s perspective, there are probably three things you love in hockey: scoring goals, big hits, and the fights” — but they serve no real purpose. They police nothing, they solve nothing.

So do what the Ontario Hockey League did last year — create a quota system. Each player in the OHL now is allowed 10 fights, with the 11th and each one thereafter earning a two-game suspension. This forces players to pick their spots. Someone levels your teammate with a dirty hit? Fight him. Trailing 6-0 at the end of a game and just want to send a message? Not worth it.

It worked. Last season, there were 482 fights in the OHL according to hockeyfights.com — down from 628 the year before, a 23.2 percent decrease.

Such a move could also help put an end to the one-dimensional goon, once and for all, and start that slow, generational culture change that could eventually lead to a fight-free sport.

“The fighter that plays three or four minutes a game is over,” said Bollig, who has actively been trying to expand his game to become more than just a fighter. “You definitely have to be able to get around the ice. The game is obviously changing, that’s no secret. But there’s still a place in the game for fighting.”

Never was that more clear than in Phoenix in February. Was it childish, and barbaric, and even dangerous for Mayers to throw down with Torres? Sure. But it was better than the alternative — an eye for an eye, an elbow for an elbow, a dirty hit for a dirty hit.

It ended things. It provided closure. It allowed the Hawks to “stick up” for a teammate, and it allowed Torres to “answer” for his transgression. That might seem silly and reckless and Neanderthalic to us, or to general managers, or to referees. But it’s anything but to the players on the ice.

“It’s been a part of it forever,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “You’ve got to be careful looking at taking out rules. Then you feel all these things you never thought about. Just keep it the way it is.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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