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Action under way to eliminate 'staged' fights

by Dan Rosen
NAPLES, Fla. - The National Hockey League, backed by its general managers, is ready to take steps toward regulating fighting and is currently researching the proper ways to make the pugilistic part of the game safer.

Those were the major recommendations that resulted from hours of discussion on the hot button topic of fighting at the annual General Managers meetings at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Southwest Florida.

The GMs and League personnel are proposing a stiffer penalty for so-called "staged" fights and a more aggressive approach to calling the instigator penalty. They also tabled the topic of how to make fighting safer until their June meeting at the Stanley Cup Final so more data could be accumulated.

"The presentation (Monday) on our stats, the history of fighting, where we are at today, injuries, was very extensive," NHL Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell said. "We tried to categorize staged fights, fights that were responding to legal and illegal hits, a lot of things. The idea was to understand where fighting is at today and what the League has done about fighting over the years when they thought fighting had became unfair and where and if fighting belonged in the game."

Campbell confirmed that the League will propose a rule change to the Competition Committee regarding "staged" fights. The League wants a stiffer penalty for players who fight directly off a faceoff, which they determined that in most instances is a staged fight.

Instead of receiving the normal 5-minute major, the proposal is to tack on a 10-minute misconduct penalty to anybody who fights off a faceoff in hopes the stiffer result will begin to phase staged fights out of the game.

According to League data accumulated in early February, 21.6 percent of fights this season have come directly off the faceoff. That's a 30 percent increase in fights off faceoffs over the last eight years.

Any rule change has to pass through the Competition Committee and the Board of Governors before it can be imposed.

"The criteria has to be that the players are involved in the play," said Minnesota GM Doug Risebrough, who was part of the sub-group that discussed fighting in the game. "You can't have that whistle-drop thing, that's the stage fight."

There also is a major groundswell to eliminate fights after clean hits, which goes back to enforcing the instigator rule more aggressively. The hope is that a stricter approach to calling the instigator penalty will cut down on the number of fights after legal hits.

The League found in early February that 23.6 percent of fights this season occurred in defense of another teammate. That's a 27-percent increase since 2000. And, 85 percent of the time those fights came after a hit was deemed legal.

But only six percent of the 609 fighting majors this season through Monday included an instigator penalty as opposed to 30 percent back in the 1980s.

Instigators receive a two-minute minor for the instigating infraction, a five-minute major for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct. There is supposed to be an extra two-minute minor if you are wearing a shield at the time you are whistled for instigating.

And a player is issued a two-game suspension after he collects three instigator penalties.

"It's one thing to go to the aid of a teammate after a cheap shot, but if it's a clean hit there seems to be an epidemic of responses when a player says, 'Well my teammate got hit, I have to go fight somebody,' " Toronto GM Brian Burke said. "It used to be that if you got hit like that you'd come back to the bench and your teammates would say, 'Keep your head up, what were you thinking?' Now somebody fights for you. It used to be maybe only one player on every team got that level of protection, now it's any teammate that gets hit.

"I was playing in the American League, if I got drilled cleanly I would come back to the bench and someone would say, 'Hey kid, keep your head up,' " Burke added. "No one would go fight the guy. They would think I was the idiot for putting myself in the exposed position."

The issue of safety in fighting is not as cut and dry.

In the wake of the tragedy in January when Don Sanderson, an Ontario senior league player, died after striking his head on the ice after a fight, all the GMs agree they should continue to monitor the safety in fighting and perhaps come to some kind of recommendation for a rule change in the future.

What that is remains to be seen because they keep going back to helmets and, more specifically, visors.

Since the Sanderson tragedy, the Ontario Hockey League adopted a new rule stating players must leave their helmets on during fights or face a one-game suspension. Some GMs argue a rule like that in the NHL will decrease the number of players who currently wear a visor, which is up to 60 percent in the NHL. It should also be noted that fighting has not decreased in the OHL since it adopted the helmet rule.

"(Wearing visors) is one of those changing aspects in fighting in hockey," Campbell said. "You didn't have shields before. We had 20 percent, 30 percent and now it is 60 percent and those players that feel they have to fight and that have shields on, they feel the fairness of it is to have to take (the helmet) off."

Campbell cited the example of Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla, who has three fighting majors this season. Iginla wears a visor and each time he fights he takes his helmet off because he thinks it's only fair to the player he is fighting.

By adopting the OHL rule, there is concern that someone like Iginla would no longer wear a visor or he would no longer feel that he could fight if he keeps the visor on.

"We want to look at it, continue to monitor it, but I'm not so sure that the right recommendation is tell players they've got to keep their helmets on," Burke said. "You've got to go slowly on some of these things. You can't overreact to one incident."

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