HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns

November 13, 2006

Game on . . . until the gloves drop

By Jesse Menden

Hockey fights . . . can you think of anything more exciting?

Two large men with skates circling, jockeying for position with their fists clenched, ready to strike upon the face of the other. It’s unlike anything else.

The crowd stands and screams at the fighters, hoping the good guy knocks the other to the ice.

And as you sit down, gather yourself, and let the blood rush back into your head, you start to think, is this right? Should the National Hockey League allow its players to fight? Should it be normal for an official to shave blood off of the ice with his skate after a fight and think nothing of it?

It is an almost comical scene to see two men skate in circles sizing each other up, while the officials move gloves, sticks, and even the net out of the way so the two fighters can go at it.

In a game two weeks ago, Anaheim Duck Todd Fedoruk was sent to the hospital with skull damage after a right hook by Minnesota Wild winger Derek Boogaard. In Boogaard’s defense, Fedoruk did get slapped with a penalty for instigating the fight.

But in any other venue outside of a NHL hockey rink or boxing ring, fighting is illegal.

Two men exchanging blows outside of a bar are usually given citations, especially if someone gets hurt. How is it that fighting is tolerated in hockey?

I don’t envy fathers who have to explain to their sons why one hockey player is reigning blows on the face of another.

These are all issues that have complex answers. They perplex me more than a Brad Johnson bomb to the end zone on fourth down-and-five with the game on the line.

Fans often cite a few good reasons why fighting is allowed. It has been a part of hockey fabric since its inception.

Many veteran hockey fans remember the heavyweight fighters of the past. Names like Bob Probert, John Ferguson, Gordie Howe, and Dave Schultz, often come up.
Also, fighting allows players to police the league. Hockey is a very physical sport.
If a big defenseman checks a skilled player and hurts him, there is little his teammates can do in retaliation if there is no fighting. With the ability to fight, bigger players will play cleanly, and won’t rough up smaller, more talented players.

And if they do hurt a smaller player, a fight like Fedoruk vs. Boogaard ensues.
But does that make it right?

The NHL has made efforts in recent years, to cut down on the amount of fighting.

Extra penalties and fines are now handed out to coaches and fighters who are involved in fights during the final five minutes of a game or in overtime.

In the “new” NHL, the fighters of years past are gone because rosters don’t have room for slow, behemoth skaters who are only good for enforcement. One example would be former Wild player Matt Johnson. According to hockeyfights.com, Johnson led the team with 23 fights 2003-04 (the year before the lockout). He is no longer in the league.

This year’s NHL rule book consists of nine pages about fighting. No other topic is given even close to that amount of attention. Rule 47 defines what a fight is and also spells out all of the numerous penalties a player can get for fighting.

It begs the question, does the NHL allow fighting because it helps the popularity of the sport?

I say the answer is yes. Without fighting, the very casual fan probably would not tune into games.

Ratings are way down. The Versus network, which carries NHL games on cable, is too hard to find. There are also attendance issues all over the NHL, including one of its most storied franchises, the Chicago Blackhawks. They have drawn as low as 5,000 people in a game this season.

As arguably the fifth or sixth most popular league in America, should NHL execs secretly be encouraging more fighting to increase fan participation?

Is it possible to find a middle ground between “Slap Shot” and old-time hockey?

Those in the headquarters at the NHL walk a fine line. Many fans are enamored by fights, and those who don’t like it, watch anyway. There are many web sites on the Internet that are dedicated to hockey fights, past and present.

In the pre-lockout NHL, I would never miss the last five minutes of a blowout game because there were always fights. But no more. If the Wild are winning 5-1 in the third period, my attention deficit disorder kicks in and I change the channel.

The new rules have dropped the number of fights, whether it was intentional or not. Just looking at the web site dropyourgloves.com, which keeps track of the number of fights for individuals, it is easy to tell that fighting is down.

Enforcers of the past, like Probert, fought just about every other game. In 1987-1988, he fought 33 times. Just is case you were wondering, in 21 of those fights, he was determined the winner.

Last season, Brian McGrattan of the Ottawa Senators led the league in fights with just 19. Boogaard was third overall with 16. In 1995-1996, the leader had 30 fights.

So back to the question, should fighting be allowed? It adds excitement to the game, but does it add to the sport?

I don’t think it does, but it is no reason to get rid of fighting. The steps that commissioner Gary Bettman has made in opening up the game and adding an instigator penalty have brought fighting to a tolerable level, and have kept the Hanson brothers at home.

As of late last week, the leader in fights through almost 20 games fought seven times. While that is on pace for around 30 fights total, fighting in the league, as a whole, is down.

Watching players fight is fun, but taking in the pure game is more exciting. A tighter reign should be put on fighting, while still allowing players to protect their teammates.

While this column raised more questions than it did answers, it is something to think about and debate. So drop the gloves and fight it out, just make sure it is on the ice.