Fighting not sacred in NHLPA ranks
Recent poll in Canada shows many fans are open to limiting or banning fighting
NHLPA boss Paul Kelly says players reflect the poll but are reluctant to speak out
Kelly feels fighting belongs, but renewed debate means some change may come
The latest report from a public opinion poll in Canada, the guardian state of hockey, is that by the slimmest of margins the public would prefer its hockey without fighting.
Addressing the question among what would be considered "die-hard" fans, the pro fighting crowd gets the slim majority, but a goodly number from either group wouldn't mind if fisticuffs were brought under strict control or eliminated entirely.
The Harris/Decima poll sampled only about 1,000 people, but it was scientific and considered a large enough sample to register the mood of the nation. No surprise there, especially in the wake of the death of senior league player Don Sanderson and a groundswell of media coverage about the consequences of fighting in a sport that has always allowed it.
People often react in the moment, and in the wake of a senseless death there is always a mood favoring change. But what's surprising, to me at least, is that Paul Kelly, the executive director of the NHL Players Association, indicates that a polling of the PA membership pretty much tracks the public's results.
Put another way: a fair number of players, removed of the obligation to pay tribute to "the code" and away from the finger-pointing of powerful media personalities who will accuse them of being soft and something less than a man for not embracing the use of fists, agree that fighting should be restricted to some degree.
"Yes, both your statements are true," Kelly told a national radio audience when PrimeTime Sports host Bob McCown asked "if in a casual conversation with a player, a stunning number would acknowledge in private that they don't like fighting in the game and that if you ask them publicly, the code kicks in and media and peer pressures kicks in."
Kelly, just back from canvassing his players, said: "There are a large number of players who prefer to see fighting out of the game and a great number who, like myself, believe it has a part (in the game)."
It's difficult to underestimate the importance of these statements in light of the fact that fighting, or what to do about it, is on the agenda for the upcoming general managers meeting in March. Though there were initial efforts to dismiss the impact of the Sanderson death because it was at the amateur level, the movement is actually gaining momentum. A player who went into convulsions after a fight in the American Hockey League last week has also added to the debate.
The comments from Kelly, the rewriting of rules by Canadian Hockey League President David Branch, Sanderson's death, and the seizure have all had an impact on hockey. It was expected that the GMs would vote for status quo at least in part because fighting has always been a part of the game, but it's also fair to say that GMs endorse it because they presume players insist on it.
That may have been the case for decades, but the tide -- which now seems to include more players -- appears to be changing.
"We have done confidential surveys on hits to the head and we know where our players are on that," Kelly said. "Regards this (fighting), it is certainly possible to get a good feeling on where they are. My sense -- and I've talked to the players -- is that they would be split on the issue and that the split would track some of the numbers I've seen in the media in the last day or two. I don't know that it would be 50-50, but it would be somewhere in the middle there. You would have a large number that would like to retain it in some degree and some that would like to see it eliminated."
Kelly doesn't have a be-all, end-all solution, but he tends to side with star winger Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames who seems to be a moderate in favor of incremental solutions. Kelly said that Iginla told him, and he happens to agree, that "If you remove it entirely and do it abruptly, you're going to have a lot more stickwork. There is a self-policing quality to a fight that arises out of the spontaneity and the emotion of the game."
Yet, neither man rules out the need for change.
Kelly's personal view seems to be one of a moderate scaling back on several fronts. He said he would like to see some action on the "whole issue of helmets" and that they remain on during fights and if one comes off, the officials move immediately to curtail the bout.
In the wake of Sanderson's death and other on-ice events, there "needs to be immediate action to end the practice of throwing players (engaged in a fight) down to the ice" where the consequences can be deadly.
Kelly also said that he is comfortable with fights that start due to the emotion of the moment, but strongly opposes the "staged or prearranged fights that don't arise out of the game." He said those were awkward and uncomfortable for him to watch and that some players have reportedly sent text messages to potential opponents suggesting they fight in an upcoming contest.
"There isn't sufficient traction to do it (remove fighting entirely), but I'd like to see steps that best protect the players including modification regards helmets and staged fights," Kelly said.
Will it happen?
It's a long way between the emotions of right now and the GMs taking up the issue behind closed doors in Naples, Fla. two months from now. If history is a guide, the status quo element of hockey can be difficult-to-nearly impossible to overcome. Still, there seems to be an understanding among the more enlightened members of management that some things need to be addressed.
NHL Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell has put the subject on the agenda and hasn't backed away from his statements indicating there is a safety problem despite the fact that his boss, Commissioner Gary Bettman, defends fighting in the game. The willingness to receive a presentation from the head of the Players Association regarding a need for change just adds to the growing chorus of voices calling for some kind of different approach to the issue.
If one can do the crystal ball thing here, one would have to say the ball is cloudy, but don't rule out the idea that there will finally be some meaningful dialogue regarding where fighting is and where it might be heading come March. The commissioner and the head of the NHLPA both agree that it is a part of the game, but how much of a part is now finally open to debate.
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