Posted: Tuesday December 19, 2006 3:40PM; Updated: Tuesday December 19, 2006 4:10PM
Brawls are always more satisfying when the goaltenders go at it, as Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon did in '97.
Then there was the 1997 classic between the Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings, the two best teams in hockey. The Avs were the defending Stanley Cup champions and had eliminated the Wings during an acrimonious playoff series in '96, in which Avs cheap-shot artist Claude Lemieux cross-checked the Wings' Kris Draper from behind, breaking his jaw and cheek. Payback came in March 1997, when Wings tough-guy Darren McCarty hammered a turtled-up Lemieux during a brawl that also featured a bout between starting goalies Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon. Vernon bloodied Roy's face, the Wings found their mojo, and Detroit went on to win the next two Cups.
As Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe famously said a half-century earlier, "If you can't beat 'em in the alley, you can't beat 'em on the ice."
Of course, like every other sportswriter, I tsk-tsked all of it. That wasn't hockey. It was a bad example for kids. It was ruining the image of the sport, which was routinely pilloried by comedians like Don Rickles: "I went to a fight last night, and a hockey game broke out."
Well, I was wrong. We were all wrong.
Fighting in the new-look NHL has plummeted. In 2003-04, before the lockout year, there were 1.27 fighting majors per game, a fraction of the old days. That dropped to just .75 in 2005-06 -- about one fight every three games. The NHL is faster than ever; cleaner than ever; more skilled than ever...and the TV ratings have never been lower. The NHL has been consigned to the Versus network, for heaven's sake, vying for air time with the cyclists and mountaineers.
It's a better sport than that. It's a great sport, but it is time to get the R-rating back in the game. Keep the skill. Keep the wide-open style of play. Add a little danger and malice.
How? Kevin Dupont, who covers the NHL for the Boston Globe, recently suggested the elimination of the third-man-in rule, which says a player coming to the aid of a teammate during a fight is automatically ejected from the game. That would do it. Because a third man in would lead to a fourth man in, and before you know it guys would be streaming over the bench and the backup goalies would be paired off.
It brings tears to my eyes to think of it. Oh, the humanity! After all, why should basketball fans have all the fun?