In the summer of 1991, I’m negotiating my new deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and then-GM Bob Pulford stares across the table and counters by saying, “Stu, I can’t pay you $300,000 a year; I don’t think there’s going to be fighting next year.” Nice try Pully.
But is anyone surprised that we’re still having the debate 23 years later?
Will the NHL ever outlaw fighting and the enforcer?
Maybe; maybe not. But more and more prominent hockey folks are adding their voices to the anti-fighting lobby and there seems to be an increasing appetite within the game to take that step. I am for leaving things as they are but let me make one point before I explain why I take that position.
If you’re going to make a change and ban fighting, do it for the right reasons.
For starters, don’t do it to save the enforcers from themselves. These guys realize the risks associated with what they do, and they accept that risk willingly. I understand the concern for player safety but save it for the reckless, deliberate blows to the heads of unsuspecting, vulnerable players. That’s where the serious injuries occur.
First off, fighting on ice has evolved, it occurs with far less frequency, and it’s become far more tactical if you look back through the 60s, the 70s and even the 80s. During the course of the regular season, you might go two or three games without seeing a player on your favorite team get into a scrap. At the NHL level, most fighting occurs because a player is protecting a teammate or a player is trying to motivate his team because his club is trailing in a game. See Paul Gaustad versus Vern Fiddler in a recent game against the Stars.
Furthermore, when I broke in, every team had a heavyweight – sometimes two. Today, my own informal survey of the league demonstrates that roughly two-thirds of NHL managers believe they can get by without the services of an enforcer. My point is: Why should the league ban fighting when the role and the act itself are becoming more and more marginalized as time goes on?
Second, and this is more an observation than a reason to leave the game as is, attempting to define “staged-fighting” and outlaw that is a fool’s errand. You can’t pick and choose which type of fighting you want to eliminate. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. There would be no end to the complaints if one day the refs were responsible for deciding that one type of fracas is okay but the participants in a different fight should be ejected for the entire game.
Finally, the presence of an enforcer keeps the other team honest. The opposition is far less likely to take liberties with your team when you have an enforcer in the lineup. And think of it this way: If the ultimate goal is to reduce trauma to the head, the threat of a fight is one tool in a small basket of tools the NHL has at its disposal to curb that sort of behavior. The enforcer, just like a ref on the ice, acts as a deterrent. If a player knows he has to answer to a Brian McGrattan or Rich Clune when he acts up, he’s far more likely to keep his elbows tucked in.
Having said that, I am the first to admit that the justification for fighting is less compelling today than it was when I played.
The game has evolved; I don’t recall the last time I saw one team come out on top simply because it brutalized its opponent. There was a day when the tougher team was most often the team that prevailed. Today, that seems to be the exception… not the rule.
If you want to ban fighting, do it for that reason. Ban fighting because the game has outgrown it.
But I’m not convinced it has.