Be that as it may, clearly you can pretty much take the Spontaneous-Outlet-of-Frustrations Theory on hockey fights and chuck it out the window. Along with the NHL rule book. And the laws of civilized man. Most of the fighting in the league is about as spontaneous as cashing a check. There are people who suspect that fighting is up this year because of all the high-sticking—high-sticking that is attributed to the wearing of helmets and the increasing popularity of face shields—but not John McCauley, the league's assistant director of officiating. "Restraining fouls and high-sticking aren't the cause," he said while watching a recent game at the Boston Garden. "It's territorial. These guys just look at each other and want to go. There's nothing at all that leads up to it."
Hence, the I-Don't-Like-Your-Face Theory. That seemed about the only explanation for the two fights McCauley witnessed between Hartford's Torrie Robertson and Boston's Jay Miller that night of Jan. 27. Puck goes into the corner, Robertson and Miller follow, and—whammo!—I don't like your face. As good a reason as any. Robertson leads the league, incidentally, with 32 fighting penalties in 53 games. That's more fights than Gerry Cooney had in his career. "Sometimes you just happen to rub heads with the other bull," explains Montreal's Chris Nilan.
Nilan has led the NHL in penalty minutes each of the last two seasons, during which time he has "rubbed heads with the other bull" a staggering 82 times, by his own count. Boys will be boys, after all. "You try to get things going when you're behind and the team is dead," says Nilan. "Especially on the road. You get overaggressive and chippy with a guy who's known as a fighter and it's bound to happen. To tell you the truth, I never really loved fighting. You get sore hands. There have been nights when I've sat in the dressing room between periods with my hands in buckets of ice. Who in their right mind likes to do that? But to be honest with you, I don't think I'd ever have gotten the chance to play up here if I hadn't fought. I'd have had to score 49 goals in 49 games in the AHL to have been brought up as a scorer. Instead, I got 304 penalty minutes in 49 games."
Nilan, who is a reasonably skilled defensive forward, was suspended for eight games this season for butt-ending the Bruins' Rick Middleton in the face. Pull that on the street and you are talking doing time for assault with a deadly weapon. But this is the NHL and, instead, Nilan can look forward to lots of I-don't-like-your-face encounters with Bruin enforcers Miller and Brian Curran. Miller has fought Nilan three times since Nilan returned from the suspension. Nothing like spontaneous combat. "I can't fault Miller for what he's doing," says Nilan. "The Bruins brought him up to 'neutralize' me. That's a nice clean word for 'fight' me. We lined up for a face-off in Montreal the second time we played and he said, 'Hi, Chris, how're you doin'?' I said, 'No talk, pal. If you want to fight, let's fight and get it over with.' So we fought. I'm a target now. When I was young, first coming in, I had targets."
Are you listening, Mr. Ziegler? Targets, not spontaneous outlets. That's what the fisticuffs in your league are all about.
How to curb the premeditated gooning, the mayhem? Park suggests that any player who accumulates 200 minutes of penalties in a season should be suspended for 10 games, and anyone who gets 250 minutes should be banned for the duration of the season. Bye-bye, Joey Kocur. Trouble with Park's panacea is that the minor leagues are filled with Joey Kocurs; suspend one, and another will be quickly called up to take his place.
Others have suggested suspending a player one game for every fight. But, as Clarke points out, "As long as fights are allowed, why should you be suspended for getting into them?" Hartford's G.M., Emile Francis, argues that the referees should distinguish between the aggressor in a fight and the defender, i.e., a Hunter from a Coffey. "Say, 'O.K., both you guys get five minutes, and as the aggressor you get a game misconduct,' " says Francis. "Put in a differential." What Francis suggests is already in the rule book, but the refs have been reluctant to crawl out onto that limb. The path of least resistance is just to hand out five-minute majors, justice be damned.
Montreal G.M. Serge Savard offers a simple solution. "Our club feels that fights should be banned from hockey," he says. "Stop it altogether. After one fight, you're out of the game. If you fight in the last five minutes, you're out of the next game, too."
Do you think that Nilan would have remained with the Canadiens if he had been thrown out of 82 of his team's 187 games the past two seasons? How about Robertson, if he had been thumbed 32 times this year in Hartford's first 53 games? "I'd support it," says Calgary coach Bob Johnson. "Some people come to see the great skill of our game, some to see the body checks. I don't know if anyone comes to see the fights." Even the scrappy Sather admits, "It's a waste of time to fight. Our fans wouldn't miss it."
Better yet, why not suspend any player given a five-minute penalty for high-sticking, spearing, butt-ending etc., for at least one game—with stronger punishment for succeeding violations. And to make that ban even more effective, the player's team would not be permitted to recall another player to replace him on the roster. Premeditated fighting would come to an immediate halt.