NAPLES, Fla. –There is no ground swell to eliminate fighting in the NHL at this time. That much was easy to deduce after just one day at the 2009 NHL General Managers Meetings.
The consensus among the GMs is no one wants to see the pugilistic aspect of the game eliminated. But the power brokers meeting here in Southwest Florida for three days will continue to discuss fighting, the hot button topic in the hockey world, because issues ranging from safety and sense are now part of the conversation.
New Jersey's Lou Lamoriello, Washington's George McPhee, Vancouver's Mike Gillis, Philadelphia's Paul Holmgren, Minnesota's Doug Risebrough and Ottawa's Bryan Murray made up the sub-committee that addressed the issue of fighting Monday.
They will bring their findings to the entire group Tuesday.
"One of the statistics that we looked at is there have been 24,000 fights in some period of time and there hasn't been a reason to amend that yet," Vancouver GM Mike Gillis told NHL.com, "but being a progressive league and trying to make sure the game is as safe and entertaining as possible, you have to explore different options and that's the purpose of these meetings."
The main issue the GMs are discussing is safety of the players who do fight. They're all asking the same question:
"This will sound really silly, is there a way to make it safer?" said Toronto GM Brian Burke, an outspoken proponent for fighting. "For guys like me that believe fighting has an integral place in our game, what's the best way to do it so senseless or needless injuries can be averted? We have to look at that and that's what we're going to do."
The Ontario Hockey League is providing a model for the League to monitor. The major junior league adopted a new rule in January, following the death of Ontario senior league player Don Sanderson, who died after losing his helmet and striking he head on the ice, that any player who removes his helmet or undoes his chin strap during a fight will be issues a game misconduct and an automatic one-game suspension.
A similar rule is being discussed here, but some GMs are wary of putting it into the NHL.
"I think that's a reaction to players deciding they were going to unilaterally take their helmets off before a fight, so to discourage that activity they created a rule," Gillis said. "It's still in its infancy. You don't know what the result of that rule is or whether it's an effective tool or an ineffective tool. That was a reaction to a tragic event that occurred and I'm not quite sure whether it's applicable to the National Hockey League or not."
Gillis added "to make the analogy" between the OHL and the NHL "I think is really dangerous" because the NHL is guarded by the world's top officials, who are under a significant microscope. It's different in the OHL.
"(The NHL) is a very different environment than any other hockey league that exists today," Gillis said. "What might be right for the Ontario Hockey League might very well not be the correct answer for us."
Burke believes requiring players to keep their helmets on during fights could potentially cause more harm than good.
"I can tell you I have never seen a player hit his head on the ice in a game that I've been at, and I have watched a lot more hockey than the average person," Burke said. "I know it happens, but to me the risk of a player getting hurt is going to be far greater from a concussion or an injured hand. That being said, if a guy falls and smacks his head hard enough that he fractures his skull, than we have to look at that."
NHL Director of Officiating Stephen Walkom told NHL.com the linesmen are already protecting the safety of the players by "jumping in when someone is vulnerable, or at least attempting to because, you know, they have their own safety to consider as well."
While safety is the No. 1 concern in fighting, most GMs would also like to see the so-called "staged fights" eliminated from the game. These are the fights that have nothing to do with retribution, defending a star player, etc.
"I'll be the first one to say I enjoy when guys square off and it's an even play. It brings energy to your building and it could bring energy to your team," Phoenix GM Don Maloney said. "But that gratuitous start, the two 250-pounders that look at each other and nod and say, 'You want to go?' 'You want to go?' 'What are you doing after?' That to me is just staged."
How the League plans to police against these "staged fights" is the stumbling block.
Burke, for one, isn't sure if the officials will be able to determine the difference.
"When I was playing in the American (Hockey) League, I went after a guy in a game who speared me two years before that when I was playing university hockey. Anyone upstairs can say it was a staged fight - well it wasn't a staged fight," Burke said. "I was going to get this guy and I was going to get him the first time I was on the ice with him. After the incident he yelled at me and said, 'What was that all about?' I said to him, 'You got me two years ago and I didn't get a chance to get your for two years.'
Buffalo GM Darcy Regier, though, believes there are times when an official can determine whether a fight was staged for "the event," he said, or if it was of the spontaneous nature in the game. He said finding a way to control that aspect is a conversation worth having.
"Did it just follow a goal? Is it right off the faceoff?" Regier said. "That's the work we have to do, the conversation we have to have, but I think most people know when it's of the spontaneous nature as opposed to the staged."
Either way, the pugilistic part of the game isn't going away. The players want fighting to be in the game and the GMs are backing them.
Now, they're ready to take the next step and make it as safe and sensible as possible.
"We want to do everything we possibly can to protect (the players) and make the environment safer," Murray said. "We want to correct what we can, knowing full well that it is fast and furious out there and that it is a contact sport and there is no stepping out of bounds. So, there are going to be people getting hurt but we want to, as best we can, control the environment a little bit more."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer