It became more of a hot-button issue after 22-year-old Don Sanderson, a player in a senior Ontario league, passed away following injuries sustained when his bare head hit the ice at the end of a fight back in January. Since then, many observers at all levels of the game have expressed opinions both in favor of limiting fighting with more strict penalties or in support of the status quo.
A sampling of comments from Stars players reveals that most believe fighting still holds a prominent place in hockey and should not be legislated out of the game.
“I think there were some interesting things that have been said, but I think most players and most people that are in the game feel that it’s a part of the game and it needs to stay in the game,” noted Stars center Brian Sutherby, who has accumulated seven fighting majors this season. “I still think that there’s a lot of intimidation out there and I think it does play a role.”
“I haven’t really followed everything that’s been said, but I don’t think you can get rid of the fighting, to be honest,” added defenseman Stephane Robidas
. “It’s part of the game, it’s part of the culture of the game. I don’t know if there’s any way they can prevent stuff like what happened in Ontario there with that young player - to me, that would probably be the only concern.”
The issue of protecting the players’ well-being is first and foremost on winger Steve Ott
’s mind. Ott, a frequent fighter in the past who hasn’t been able to throw any punches after severely fracturing his right hand in November, is for any potential rule tweaks that better protect the combatants.
“I think first and foremost is the safety of the players,” said Ott, who missed 62 games back in 2006-07 after breaking his ankle while being taken down at the end of a fight. “I think nobody wants to see anybody get hurt, especially badly, in any situation, especially in a fight, and be out for long periods of time.
“Will they ever take fighting out of the game? Never. It’s part of the game. I love it, I think the fans love it just as much as goals sometimes and for myself, it’s something that I hope they don’t take too many rules out of it, but if they protect the players a little bit more on the safety issues, then I’m definitely for it.”
To that end, there was a proposal to assess additional minor penalties for players who removed their helmets during a fight, to prevent scenarios like the one that led to Sanderson’s death back in January.
“That’s the safety part. You want to have the same advantage as the other guy,” Ott said. “If a guy has a visor on and you don’t, obviously there’s an unfair advantage there. So they’ve got to find a way around the rule. I agree that you don’t need to be taking off your helmet and banging your head on the ice and knocking yourself out and possibly other things. Definitely you want to be as safe as possible. You can still have a pretty good fight with your helmet on.”
“Maybe that would be a good rule, I don’t know,” said Robidas, who occasionally fights, but wears a visor, so he has to remove the helmet first. “To be honest, I don’t know. It’s a tough call. There’s been a few injuries, guys get knocked out. I don’t know what they can do. I don’t think they can take it out of the game, to be honest.”
One of the main arguments against getting rid of fighting is that it would be accompanied by an increase in other, more dangerous, cheap shots from players who were no longer worried about retribution.
“If you took fighting out of the game, I think that - especially guys that don’t fight - everyone would be 2-3 inches taller and 20-30 pounds heavier,” Sutherby said. “I just feel like star players would be getting hit more and there would be a lot more liberties taken than if there wasn’t fighting in the game. I just think that guys change the way they play when they know they might have to be more accountable for their actions.”
In the end, the GMs formally recommended just one rule change to the NHL’s Board of Governors regarding fighting, in an effort to cut down on what they call ‘staged fights’ - bouts that occur immediately following a face-off. Citing statistics that indicate 22 percent of all fights happen under those circumstances, the GMs proposed giving additional 10-minute misconduct penalties to any players that square off just after a face-off.
“I’m not an advocate of taking fighting out of the game, but to me, the staged fights are not part of the game,” said Stars coach Dave Tippett, who was known to drop the gloves every once in a while during his 11-year NHL playing career. “I still feel like intimidation and emotion are two strong parts of our game and I don’t think those can leave our game. Fighting sometimes keeps the honesty in our game and a hockey fight, to me, is part of our game. The staged fights, or fights where guys are just fighting for the sake of fighting, I don’t think we need those.”
Not everyone agrees with that notion, though, as many don’t consider those fights ‘staged’ at all. Although they may appear to be completely unprovoked or devoid of prior emotion, there is usually some previous incident that precipitated it.
“You know what, guys got to go out and do their job,” said Ott, who fought 13 times last season. “You can call them staged or whatnot, but it might have happened five shifts before when somebody ran someone, and it was their first shot to get at each other, so for them to have to then go and skate for 10 seconds and then fight would be ridiculous, rather than just getting it out of the way. The staged fighting part of it, I think, has to stay.”
“There are some unnecessary fights,” Sutherby conceded, “but a lot of those are still trying to change momentum, or something’s happened earlier in the game where one of your guys has been hit and someone’s going out there to try and send a message and make sure it doesn’t happen again. There are probably some (fights off face-offs) that are unnecessary, but there’s still some history there - there’s still some purpose to them, whether people are taking note of something that happened earlier in the game or a prior game.”
Another related topic discussed at the GM meetings was the recent proliferation of fights where players responding to hard clean hits against themselves or a teammate start fights with the checker. The GMs want the instigator penalty applied more stringently to reduce those situations.
“The rules are what they are, it’s how they interpret calling them,” Tippett said. “We’ve seen a lot of plays where there are hits to your own team and you have people retaliating and that’s been part of the game for a long time. It just seems like the retaliation is more instant, and in the old days, it used to be, take a number and eventually you’d get around to it, but it seems like the focus is on being more instant these days. That’s led to more focus on the fighting itself.”
One non-fighting issue also discussed was the possibility of penalizing any hits to a player’s head, whether it was a cleanly-delivered check or not.
“I’m big on anything to the head, that’s tough slugging,” Tippett said. “The size and speed of players now, when players start to get head injuries, you’re looking at longer term stuff and I just don’t think that’s good for our game. Stuff to keep the players safe is always, I think, a good direction to go.”
But even after getting leveled by an open-ice shoulder hit to the head from St. Louis defenseman Jay McKee on Tuesday that kept him out the last two games with an ‘upper body injury,’ winger Mark Parrish still doesn’t completely support calling penalties on those types of plays.
“That’s a tough one,” Parrish said. “I think there’s got to be some discretion there, because that was a clean hit. He was coming straight at me, I don’t know what else he really could have gone after. It’s a clean hit if he keeps his elbow down and stays on his feet - there’s nothing you can do. There’s times when, if you’re skating next to a guy or you’re coming at him from the side, you can choose between getting his body and getting his head, and you go after his head, there’s a place and time when guys have to respect the other players. It’s a tough call, but it’s one of those things where if they do make it a rule, I hope they give some discretion, because there’s just situations where it’s a hockey play and then there’s other times when guys do head hunt.”
“I’ve always felt that’s part of the game,” added Sutherby. “I’m the guy that gave Parrish that pass and I still feel sick to my stomach about it. Setting your player up to get killed like that is probably the worst feeling I’ve ever had in a hockey game, but at the same time, it’s a clean hit. And it’s my mistake and a guy’s got to be aware where they are on the ice and if you’re starting to worry about throwing clean hits and where on the body, then you’re really picking spots.
“The game’s changed - obviously guys are bigger, guys are stronger, guys train harder, but I guess the old saying goes, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to play the game. It’s still hockey, it’s still a contact sport and there’s some honor in that and playing that way and I don’t think you can start nitpicking where on the body you can hit. Elbows, sticks, stuff like that, absolutely, but I don’t know about penalizing clean hits. I think you’ve got to leave those in the game.”
That proposed rule was not one of the recommendations the GMs are submitting to the Board of Governors, along with the Competition Committee that includes players and team executives, for approval before they could be implemented for next season.