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Pickin' The Corners 03.12.09: NHL General Managers Seek to Return Fighting To Its Proper Place
Posted by Ian Smart on 03.12.2009

Normally, I pay little attention to the recommendations that arise from the annual winter meeting of NHL General Managers. I pay them such little attention with good reason; the products of these meetings are seldom worth mentioning, and the recommendations are typically abhorrent.

Bigger Nets!
Tighter-fitting jerseys!
Teams in places without snow!

Yet this year, I must tip my hat to the General Mangers for doing something that has long been necessary in the NHL: removing what I like to call ‘spectacle fighting' from the game.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, let me take a moment to explain. Fighting is a part of hockey - it always has been, and it always will be. It is an integral part of the game; a manner by which the game was able to police itself, and an effective method of concentrating the aggression and tension that is created when men crash into each other on skates. It can also be a mechanism that teams can use to deter their opponents from taking cheap shots at their skilled players.

In a rugby scrum, players are bitten, scratched, and stomped on. Linemen in football have been known to attack the eyes, fingers and knees of opponents and if Bill Romanowski can be taken at his word, that is only the tip of the iceberg. Fights in hockey subvert the tendency for players to utilize underhanded tactics to inflict pain on their opponents by instead allowing willing participants to drop the mits and fight. It may seem archaic or barbarous, but it works, and it is an aspect of game that has been woven into the tapestry of hockey. Twenty years ago, most players on an NHL roster would – if the situation dictated- engage in a fight. The best example in my mind, and the one most near and dear to me is Wendel Clark who filled the role as both the Maple Leafs enforcer and the team's top sniper. Clark was never afraid to tangle with the NHL's biggest and toughest, and he could also be counted on for 30 goals. You could put Clark on a line with Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk, and he could supply the firepower and the grit. These players still exist, but over the last decade, fighting has become an evermore-specialized part of the game, and the task of infusing a team with grit and supplying the physical deterrent has been drawn away from these renaissance hockey players (Iginla, Thornton, Komisarek, Ryan Malone) and placed in the hands of a select few "enforcers" who are nothing more than boxers on ice.

Fighting is supposed to occur naturally and spontaneously: one player coming to the defence of another, or because of a physical battle in the corner. However, these ‘fight specialists' only enter the fray now at the behest of their coach or because the fight has been pre-arranged, such as the one found below between Brad May versus Krys Barch.

The announcers tell you all you need to know; these guys had all but choreographed the fight before the game. They fought because they are specifically tasked with the job of fighting and nothing else; they are hired goons.

One can argue that these players have been present throughout hockey's history. Dave Semenko was Wayne Gretzky's bodyguard and Joey Kocur kept his job on the Red Wings to ensure that no one dare take a cheap shot at Steve Yzerman, but these men also stepped on the ice and contributed to other facets of the game. Joey Kocur once scored 16 goals in a season; Dave Semenko recorded three seasons with more than 20 points. Cam Janssen, Georges Laraque, and Andrew Peters have a combined 7 points this season (and 42 whole shots!), and with the exception of Janssen don't even supply a physical presence it terms of body checks – Andrew Peters has recorded less than .5 hits per game this season. These players are not NHL calibre talents; they should not been on NHL rosters.

And these are the players who are most afraid of the new rules, because they have nothing to offer but their ability to step onto the ice and fight. Thus, as elucidated by Georges Laraque to TSN yesterday, "this will take the one-dimensional player out of the NHL because that's who they will say starts a staged fight." The proposed rule will penalize players participating in a "staged fight" with an additional ten-minute misconduct, and because players such as Laraque and Peters are such liabilities on the ice under any other circumstance, the only fights they are involved in are of the pre arranged variety.

Will the rules eliminate fighting in hockey? Not by a long shot. Fights will still occur, but only when there is a purpose behind them. Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton, and even Marian Hossa have all taken the gloves off this season and fought, but they do so only when there is a justification. Players with their skill will not needlessly fight, because they contribute in so many other ways that it would be detrimental to the team for them to be in the sin-bin for a fighting major, unless the fight was justifiable. Teammates are encouraging Laraque, Peters, and Janssen to throw down to give the real players some space on the bench. If a fight needs to occur, it will arise naturally from the play on the ice.

In the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Red Wings Derrian Hatcher did everything he could to slow down Jarome Iginla in the offensive zone. He hooked him, crosschecked him, grabbed his sweater, and just leaned on him throughout the first two games of the series. Hatcher likely would have gotten away with it, except when Iggy reached his boiling point late in a 5-2 loss in game two, Iginla stepped up and defended himself against Hatcher, and got the better of the exchange. For the rest of the series Hatcher gave Iginla and extra bit of space along the boards, and in front of the net because he knew that Iginla was not afraid to get physical. Iginla's fight in game two helped to alter the dynamic of the series. A series Calgary would ultimately end-up winning.

Vincent Lecavalier is not known as a physical player, but he is more than willing to defend himself during a game (see below).

Hockey players have grown up and lived through years of their sport. They have become hardened and accustom to the rigours of the game, and the vast majority of them are willing, when circumstances dictate to fight. If it is to defend a teammate, or to defend oneself, or even just to light a fire under their team, players will fight.

And these are the situations when fighting should take place: in the heat of battle. That is what fighting in hockey used to be about, and these new rules, if implemented, will be a step in the right direction towards returning the practice of fighting back to its original intent, and for that I say to the NHL GM's that you might not be so bad after all.

Got something to say wanna drop the mits? E-mail me at theaceofstaff@gmail.com


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