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Fighting a Part of NHL Game

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers

Rounding up anyone in the NHL who supports a ban on fighting in the sport is as difficult as believing that steroid use didn’t infest major league baseball in the 1990s.

In the aftermath of the seizure suffered by the AHL Phantoms’ Garrett Klotz in a fight and the death of Canadian junior hockey player Don Sanderson after he hit his head on the ice during a fight, there are renewed calls to eliminate fighting from hockey.

If the views of Flyers players, coaches, general manager Paul Holmgren and two other NHL general managers reflect the mood of the league, fighting will stay.

“There’s a place for it,” Holmgren said. “It supplies some kind of release. Hockey is a continuous sport. Things happen at the spur of the moment. At times, it does have an effect on games. I’ve seen games where not a whole lot is going on and I think ‘this game needs a good fight.’”

Hockey is the only one of the four major professional sports that allows fighting. I know, there are occasional fights in baseball and basketball, but they aren’t as accepted or as prevalent as they are in hockey.

As I spoke with hockey people about fighting, it occurred to me that it would be difficult, especially for players, to urge that fighting be dropped. Wouldn’t be macho for them to oppose fighting.

“Intimidation is part of the game,” said Flyers veteran winger Mike Knuble. “It’s ingrained in players. If you going to start (eliminating fighting), you’d have to start at the grassroots level.”

Two themes among those favoring fighting in hockey are: it’s been part of the sport, and it keeps players who try to intimidate opponents honest because they know they’ll be hearing from the tough guys on the opposing team.

“Hockey is a unique game in that we have players of all different sizes, with different skill levels and different degrees of courage,” said Nashville GM David Poile. “Each is carrying a stick, and a stick has always been a great equalizer. Often times, fighting has been a deterrent for people to stay within character. If you talk to the players, (fighting) is more important to them than it is to the fans.”
Flyers captain Mike Richards has been known to try and change the momentum of a game by dropping the gloves. (Getty Images)

Toronto GM Brian Burke said, “When people say to me ‘there’s no fighting in football’ I tell them `this isn’t football.’ There are only two sports that don’t have an out of bounds and permit contact: boxing/mixed martial arts and hockey. I don’t want to see this game without (fighting).”

Flyers assistant coach Jack McIlhargey was an NHL defenseman who had more than his share of fights. He agrees with Burke, saying, “It’s a physical game with a lot of emotion in a closed-in area. We’re a different sport (from the other major sports). That’s why we have a different fan base.

As we spoke at the Skate Zone, McIlhargey was holding a power tool, so I wasn’t about to debate with him.

Burke, a former Flyers farmhand, was Anaheim’s GM when the Ducks won the Stanley Cup two years ago. Those Ducks were a physical bunch. When a team has success as Anaheim did, its NHL rivals tend to copy their styles. But Poile notes that Detroit won last year’s Stanley Cup as more of a finesse team.

Traditionally, fighting has been a gate appeal in minor league hockey, particularly in markets that are new to the sport. Addressing whether fighting is used to sell tickets, Burke said, “If that were the case, then we’d dress five heavyweights instead of one. It’s not to sell tickets, although it is part of what we do.

“There’s less than one fight a game now in the National Hockey League. It’s not at the 1970s level, when there were bench-clearing brawls. You could get in a fight back then just by looking at a guy funny. There was too much fighting then. It was a tactic then. Now, it’s a response more than a tactic.

“Fighting is heavily penalized: you sit for five minutes. It allows players to regulate the level of violence on the ice.”

Said Flyers coach John Stevens: “Hockey is a physical, emotional game. If you take the fighting out of it, it might be more reckless.”
College hockey is a dirtier game. Guys run around like idiots. They do other things to get back at each other instead of dropping the gloves.” - Darroll Powe on comparing the dangers of college hockey to the NHL

When the NHL mandated that players must wear helmets, players who were already in the league could choose not to strap on helmets.

“I played with Kevin McCarthy (a former Flyers defenseman). He was still playing without a helmet. He was experimenting with wearing a helmet and taking it off. I remember him telling me he couldn’t believe the difference when he was along the wall. When he didn’t have a helmet on, guys wouldn’t try to run him through the boards and sticks were down. When he had a helmet on, they were taking more runs at him and sticks seemed to get up a lot more.”

After Klotz suffered his seizure in a fight with Manchester’s Kevin Westgarth, Phantoms coach John Paddock said he opposes “staged fights” just after opening faceoffs. “It’s not part of the game,” Paddock said. “It has nothing to do with hockey. I think it’s a waste of time.”

Holmgren agrees there is more staged fighting, but he says, “It’s usually the heavyweights (who fight).” Holmgren, a feared fighter as a player, also said, “I can’t remember when two guys were fighting for the puck in the corner, got mad and fought.”

A major concern is the size of contemporary NHL heavyweights. Klotz is 6-5, 235 pounds. Westgarth is 6-5, 247. Compared to them, the Flyers’ Riley Cote (6-1, 210) and Arron Asham (5-11, 205) are middleweights. The bigger the players, the more serious damage they can inflict with their fists.

Flyers rookie Darroll Powe played for Princeton. Fighting is not permitted in college hockey. Ask if he could see the NHL without fighting and he says, “Absolutely not. College hockey is a dirtier game. Guys run around like idiots. They do other things to get back at each other instead of dropping the gloves.”

Fighting is on the agenda at the next NHL general managers’ meeting.

“The discussion on the elimination of fighting is going to be short,” Burke said. “The mechanics of fighting are going to be debated: do you have to keep your helmet on, etc…”

Klotz, for his part, plans to continue fighting. “I know the risks,” he said. “I’m willing to take that risk. It’s not very often that a thing like this happens.”

Although the longer I’ve been around hockey, the more I think fighting demeans a great sport, I understand its place. I’d be shocked if the NHL ever forbids fighting, but the league will have to live with the criticism it receives. And the consequences, if there’s ever a fatality.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.
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