Defenseman Keith Ballard admits he was at a disadvantage coming out of the University of Minnesota when it came to fighting in the NHL.
“You don’t really know what you’re doing until you get beat up a couple times,” Ballard said.
But that doesn’t mean the Panther defenseman doesn’t believe there’s a place for fighting in the game. “It’s a way for players to take care of things on the ice, and I don’t know one way or another if they take it out of the game what will happen?”
Ballard is not alone, and the debate on fighting has never been louder than over the past month since 21-year-old Don Sanderson of Ontario’s Senior AAA league died from injuries sustained in a Jan. 2 fight.
The Ontario Hockey League reacted quickly to Sanderson’s death, increasing penalties for those who fight with their helmets off or attempt to take off their opponent’s helmet. Now it’s the NHL’s turn.
The topic of fighting will be on the agenda when general managers meet March 9-11 in Naples, and they will pass on their findings to the Board of Governors in June.
So what will the NHL do? Could they ban fighting? Ban the removal of helmets? Reduce or increase the penalty for instigating? How about players wearing visors?
“It’s a subject that will not go away whatever the decision, and there will never be a unanimous decision, if I may use the fighting term,” said Panthers’ alternate governor Bill Torrey.
Torrey, who began his NHL career in 1967 and built the Islanders dynasty before coming to the Panthers in 1993, says there’s a myriad of things to consider when it comes to fighting at the NHL level.
“You and I both know some people go to games because they like to see a fight, or the possibility of a fight,” Torrey said. “But there’s no question the danger level has risen considerably because of the size of the players. When guys in the league were 5-8, 175 pounds, and they fought, there was never the fear something would happen to them that happened to Don Sanderson. Now you have players in the NHL who are 6-5, 255 pounds, and they’re throwing punches.
“You have to be a little myopic not to see the possibility of serious damage. It’s been raised to a higher level.”
Torrey also questions if eliminating fighting will lead to more stick incidents, something that didn’t seem to be an issue 20 or 30 years ago.
“I don’t think there’s any question, if you went back a little way in this game, guys never carried their sticks high,” he said. “If you stick our guy then you were going to get a stick. It was self policing. And the fighting emanated from the play, guys would be battling in the corner or fighting for the puck along the boards. They staged fights we now see – and you can tell the difference – to me that’s ridiculous. But there are now players on rosters for one reason, and, unfortunately, those guys are so big and strong the potential danger is very, very obvious.”
But there’s no clear answer or agreement on what should or shouldn’t be done when it comes to fighting.
Red Wings’ coach Mike Babcock was quoted by Sun Media; “There’s a place in the game for fighting. It just has to be handled correctly.” NHL legend and Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky suggested banning fighting except at the NHL level. Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke told the Toronto Sun fighting would “rip the fabric out of the game.”
“To me, fighting is the mechanism that allows players to regulate the level of violence in the game,” Burke said. “There are already a number of players in the league who flaunt the system. Fighting brings accountability to that. To me, there is a growing rat factor in our league right now. You know who those players are. I don’t have to name them. But do you want to turn the league over to them?”
Panther GM Jacques Martin admits he often wondered why fighting was allowed in the NHL. “I always wondered why there’s no fighting in football, no fighting in basketball and baseball.”
| Florida Panthers defenseman Nick Boynton, right, throws a punch during a fight with Boston Bruins left wing Milan Lucic during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Boston, Friday Nov. 21, 2008.(AP Photo/Charles Krupa) |
Martin said when he coached he always tried to “get people who could bring some physicality to the team.”
“But at the same time they need to be able to play,” Martin added.
As far as whether a team needs an enforcer to win, Martin pointed to recent Stanley Cup-winning teams in Detroit and Dallas as examples of teams who won without a ‘fighter.’
Panther defenseman Nick Boynton seems to weigh with the majority when it comes to fighting. “There’s a place for it,” Boynton said. “You lose a big part of the game if you take it out. Obviously, the stupid stuff has to be kept an eye on, but I think there’s definitely a place for it.”
Ballard called the Sanderson incident “very tragic” and understands why it has raised questions about fighting.
“I just don’t know if they take it out of the game what’s going to happen,” he wondered. “Are guys just going to run around and act like idiots.”
During All-Star weekend, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said he didn’t think there was an “appetite to abolish fighting from the game.”
“But I do think what we’re going to have to take a good look at is what I described to the board as the rules of engagement,” he added. “How a fight gets initiated, what happens with chin straps and helmets, what happens with takedowns. There are two recent incidents involving players falling and banging their heads, either on the boards or on the ice, and we’ve got to take a hard look at that.”
And, in the words of Torrey, it will be a “very difficult issue for the NHL.”