Fighting in the NHL is political.
Most players and the majority of people who run the game, including NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Leafs president and GM Brian Burke, want to keep fighting in the game.
So do Don Cherry and his right wing acolytes. They believe, after all, in a self-governing universe that is free from the intemperate interference of the state. It makes sense: the same people who think it takes courage and a strong sense of moral clarity to control hockey’s cowardly rat-faced weasels usually share the same view about other weasels in very dry and distant precincts.
Fighting proponents, Burke among them, could point to hockey’s long list of tough guys, John Ferguson, Pat Quinn, Keith Magnusson, Tim Hunter, who are well-loved, honourable men. The people who run the NHL know and sometimes are the very men who did the fighting.
I think hockey men think of themselves as hunters. Who better to set an ecosystem right through the fear or execution of startling violence than the person with the rifle and hip waders?
The wisdom of these men is inviolate. Doug Gilmour remembers the first few minutes of the 1994 Conference final against the Vancouver Canucks. Gilmour was wearing Canucks tough guy Gino Odjick like a bad suit. Wendel Clark didn’t worry about Odjick. He skated to Canucks star Pavel Bure. “Tell your friend to back off,” Clark said evenly, “or I’ll rip your head off.” Bure blanched. He had a very pretty head.
By Gilmour’s next shift, Odjick was gone. Crisis averted.
The death of the Whitby Dunlops’ Don Sanderson in a fight has added air and fuel to the debate, if such a thing as a debate actually exists. Bettman’s statements that the league’s discussions will touch on ‘rules of engagement’ and not fighting itself serves as ample proof that there is nothing near to a reform movement inside the game.
Most people who want fighting quelled are outside the game. The majority of hockey writers, it’s been my experience, like fighting. So do most broadcasters. We already know the players will stand up for it.
Can you blame the people in the game, the hunters, for eschewing the cries from outside the duck pond? Everyone they know agrees with them. (It is also true that some hockey people, Ron Wilson and Pat Quinn come to mind, decry the pointless staged fight where two heavyweights uninvolved in the game all night square off to “change the momentum” of a contest.)
I once said to Gary Bettman that nothing, absolutely nothing in hockey makes sense if you permit players to pummel each other with their fists.
It seemed to him a wild argument. “Do you really believe that?” he said.
That’s why it will take a profound tragedy - and we know what we are talking about here - to invoke changes.
But look at the other side. Most Canadian females, 63 per cent in a recent poll, oppose fighting and these are increasingly the very people solely responsible for committing their sons and daughters to the sport.
What the hockey people cannot measure is what they are losing by keeping a behaviour that alienates two thirds of Canadian women. Sixty eight per cent of hockey fans want hockey fights but when you measure the public at large, the majority of Canadians, 54 per cent, want it excised from the game.
How many hockey fans would stop being hockey fans if someone abolished or seriously impeded fighting? I’m guessing not too many. Now, how many non-hockey fans would be willing to give the game a chance?
The NHL’s embrace of the status quo means the sport will have to live with the Georges Laracques, the Donald Brashears and the Derek Boogaards. Those players, mutated progeny of the John Fergusons and even Bob Proberts, are the price that has to be paid to keep fighting, and the game’s own internal code, in the mix.
The kicker here is that hockey does not need fighting to sell tickets. The game’s speed, athleticism and yes, its own rugged ethic, are as compelling as that of any sport on the planet.
What the league’s mavens don’t know, what they can’t know, is how many people have been turned away by the sight of two men pummeling each other.
In a segmented market, professional wrestling and the blood-soaked carnival that is mixed martial arts shrewdly addresses the market in bloodlust.
It’s time to put the politics aside. The NHL can do better.