Highlights: Capitals 4, Blues 1
It is a question that has dogged the NHL for as long as it’s existed.
But for the first time in a long time, it’s a debate that is gaining serious traction.
What would the NHL be like if fighting was removed from the game?
Last month, Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford stunned players and fans alike when he told TSN’s Darren Dreger, “We’ve got to get rid of fighting, it has to go.”
Rutherford was not alone. Penguins general manager Ray Shero and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said that if not eliminated, fighting in the NHL should at least be re-evaluated, with Yzerman suggesting a game misconduct for fighting.
“I wonder what Bob Probert would have thought about that,” Capitals defenseman John Erskine said. “Didn’t he protect Yzerman all those years?”
Last week in Toronto, NHL general managers discussed fighting among goalies, with the intent of tackling the greater issue of fighting in hockey when they meet again in Boca Raton, Fla., in March.
“I’m not sure I should speak for the group,” said Capitals general manager George McPhee, who compiled 257 penalty minutes in 115 NHL games as an NHL player, “but most GMs are comfortable with the way it is. But that’s one man’s opinion.”
Actually, it’s not just one man’s opinion.
Last year, a poll of NHL players indicated that 95 percent of them believed fighting belongs in the game.
Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin wholeheartedly agrees, even though, like most European players, he grew up playing a sport that did not allow fighting.
“One hundred percent,” he said. “If fights not going to be in the game, lots of idiots are going to be out there coming at us. For them, they’re going to be happy because no one [is] allowed to fight them.
“It’s a men’s sport. It’s not a ballet. I think it’s stupid to cancel the fight and say, ‘No fight anymore.’”
Capitals left wing Brooks Laich also fears what might happen if fighting is weeded out of the game.
“I think you might be trying to solve one problem, but you’re creating five others,” he said.
“For one, there would certainly be more stick work. There would be more cheap shots. Your star players would feel the brunt of the abuse.
“From what I’ve seen in the course of my career the staged fighting has weeded itself out. The heavyweight, thug, goon, role player has been weeded out.”
According to HockeyFights.com, there were 146 fighting majors in the first 283 NHL games this season, an average of .52 fights per game. That’s slightly higher than last season when there were .48 fights per game, and significantly higher than in 2005-06 when there were .38 fights per game, the lowest percentage in the past 13 seasons.
“There is still a place in the game for [fighting] if it’s spontaneous,” Laich said, “but I think the circus antics of the past, which was basically a pay-per-view, staged boxing fight, has been weeded out of the game.”
Laich believes that if the NHL starts issuing game misconducts for fighting, the Patrick Kaletas, Matt Cookes and Max Lapierres of the world will be given free passes to do their dirty work.
“If somebody does something incredibly outrageous and there isn’t fighting, there’s no repercussion for that player,” Laich said. “He can go and do it the next game and the game after that. If there’s a game misconduct to go and fight him, that means we lose somebody the next game, maybe one of our best penalty killers.
“I think if you eliminate fighting from our game a lot of dirty things will creep in.”
McPhee agrees, saying that is the greatest concern of general managers who want to keep fighting in the game.
“That’s why a lot of us believe there is still a place for fighting in the game,” McPhee said. “It’s regarded as a safety guard, believe it or not, by a lot of people. It can bring the temperature up and it can bring it down.
“It comes down to what kind of confrontation do you want? Do you want [high] sticks? Do you want hitting from behind? Do you want your stars attacked?”
The answer, of course, is no. Just ask Ovechkin, who said he relies on the protection of teammates like Steve Olesky, Aaron Volpatti, John Erskine, Tom Wilson and Michael Latta.
Ovechkin has fought three times in his NHL career, dropping the gloves with the Flyers’ Mike Richards in a 2006 preseason game, Buffalo’s Paul Gaustad later in that 2006-07 season, and the Rangers’ Brandon Dubinsky during the 2010-11 season.
“Guys like us, we’re not going to have any protection from other players,” Ovechkin said. “Guys like Steve O, Patty, Ersk, Willie, Latta, they love to fight if we need them. If they’re going to say we can’t fight anymore, what’s the situation going to be like for them and for us?”
Volpatti agreed, saying the NHL better peek inside Pandora’s box before opening it.
“I’m kind of with everyone else,” Volpatti said. “If they take it out, I think guys will start using their sticks with the whacks and high sticks. If they took fighting out it would be interesting to see how safe the game would be.”