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Posted: Wednesday January 28, 2009 12:58PM; Updated: Thursday January 29, 2009 11:05AM
Kostya Kennedy Kostya Kennedy >
INSIDE THE NHL

NHL lacks courage to ban fighting

Story Highlights

Rather than ban fighting and alienate fans, NHL will look at rules of engagement

Recent death and injury in fights make safety crucial but NHL's approach is absurd

NHL could curb fighting with stiffer penalties and making refs enforce the rules

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Heavyweight bout: enforcers George Parros of the Ducks and Chris Neil of the Senators spontaneously blow off a little steam . . . according to game plan.
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Doubtful that league governors will adopt any kind of real ban on fighting in the family-friendly NHL, Commissioner Gary Bettman is instead saying that he'd like them to examine the "rules of engagement" for fights. It's all pretty vague at this point, but such rules might mean that a goon will have to do things like make sure that his opponent has his chinstrap secure before he pounds him. Or that referees pay extra special attention to who takes down whom first

But how about this for a modest proposal:

At every NHL game, fights will be scheduled for the 10-minute mark of the first and third periods. A guy from each team will unlace his skates and climb into a makeshift boxing ring that's been wheeled out to center ice. A referee, trained specifically for this role, will announce the dos and don'ts. ("No poking, no biting, no wabbit punching, etc.") The houselights will dim, a spotlight will shine on the combatants, the corner men will scream encouragement, and the players will go at it for three 45-second rounds.

Then back to the wussy stuff.

It's an ideal solution. You could market the fights beforehand, set up David vs. Goliath match-ups: "Martin St. Louis vs. Zdeno Chara Tonight in the Third Period!" Game programs could list the reach and handedness of each fighter, along with his career record in the center-ice ring.

The rigid, mid-period scheduling would be perfect for fans, who could then make sure they did not miss a single blow. The rare person who is on hand simply to see a league that produces the world's best hockey -- that is, folks who might think such fighting belongs alongside a guy hunting a Mastodon -- could use the time to get a soft drink, say, or peruse the ice-dancer pom-poms in the arena gift shop.

In this solution, the players would still be "policing themselves" just the way today's fighting advocates want, and teams could make sure to protect any injured players by keeping them out of the ring. Perfect.

Look, we know that teams need to raise their fists in today's NHL. (See: Why Good Teams Fight from SI's NHL Preview.) That intimidation factor has proven all but essential to success. Still, it basically comes down to this: Everyone's doing it and if you don't, you'll get pushed around. If fighting were out of the game completely, great franchises would still emerge, fists unballed. Just ask, say, MoDo in Sweden.

The old argument that fighting is a spontaneous outgrowth of the tensions that build up throughout a game hasn't held water for years. If that were true, teams wouldn't have specialized five-minute-a-night heavyweights to send out and any suggestion of "rules of engagement" would be nonsensical.

The somewhat more salient case that fighting is valuable because it instills a fear of pummeling that may deter on-ice rogues from slashing, elbowing and other dirty work, sure stinks of the easy way out. Why not force the referees to be more vigilant? Why not up the penalty-box minutes for the crimes? The strategy has worked wonders in limiting obstruction after all.

Then there is fighting's fan appeal. It's hard not to watch a hockey fight when it unfolds before you. I watch it the same way I can't help myself from peering out the side window when I drive past an accident on the highway. But I sure wish that the accident had never happened. And if fighting were out of the game, I sure wouldn't stop watching hockey. Would you? Would you stop tuning in or going to games if fighting were abolished? That's the NHL's billion-dollar question.

The awful and heart-wrenching death by hockey fight of senior league player Don Sanderson and the seizure suffered in a fight by the AHL's Garrett Klotz doesn't yet seem to have convinced hockey's brain trust that fighting doesn't belong. But at least the discussion lines are open.

Being a fighter in the NHL takes courage. Advocating fighting in the NHL does not. The most courageous thing would be to end the NHL's Neanderthal Age, to get past the old thinking, to behave as if it were the year 2009 and to make the hockey world a better place.

What's your take? Weigh in here.

More on fighting in hockey

Bettman says fighting wil stay

KELLEY: GMs to renew the debate

GALLERY: Most notorious goons and enforcers

 
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