In an interview on New York's Madison Square Garden Network last week, Sports Forum host Greg Gumbel asked NHL president John Ziegler if he thought that the fighting in hockey should be eliminated. Ziegler replied, "It doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is providing a product that people enjoy and want to go see...because I am in the entertainment business, and the measure to me is, Are people going to pay money to go see this entertainment? And they are saying yes to it...so, if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
The next night, the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens "entertained" the fans in Montreal's Forum with a 15-minute free-for-all before the sixth game of their Stanley Cup semifinal. The slugfest started when the Flyers tried to thwart Canadien Claude Lemieux's silly pregame ritual of shooting the puck into the opponent's net at the end of the warmups. Philadelphia's Ed Hospodar, a player to whom the word "goon" is sometimes applied, punched Lemieux repeatedly, and soon most of the other players returned to the ice to join in the brawl. No penalties were handed out on the spot, because, said NHL officials, the league has no regulations covering pregame fighting. Yet when a similar incident occurred in the American Hockey League playoffs on April 11, AHL officials assessed nine game-misconduct penalties.
A day after the NHL fight, the league suspended Hospodar for the remainder of the playoffs and handed out fines totaling $24,500. The punishment was a case of too little, too late. Hospodar is hardly a pivotal loss for the Flyers, and the fines were spread out among 36 players. Ziegler refused to comment because, he said, the players have a right to appeal.
Ziegler's contention that he is merely in the entertainment business is twice flawed. First, the NHL has a responsibility to set an example. Far too many college and youth games now resemble the Slap Shot style of hockey that pervades the pro game. One has to believe that if youngsters see the NHL return to a clean, hard-skating type of game, they'll be encouraged to play that kind of hockey. Ziegler's argument is also damaged by television ratings, which show that hockey telecasts are falling in popularity—ESPN's playoff ratings are off 25% from '86.
"We sell 85 percent of all seats," Ziegler told Gumbel. Yes, and pro wrestling's arenas are filled, too.
And then we have those solemn denials by league officials that NHL referees swallow their whistles in the last stages of close games or in overtimes. But The Hockey News reports that the last time there was a power play in the overtime of an NHL playoff game was April 7, 1984. That means that in the past 43 overtime playoff games, covering 352 minutes (the equivalent of almost six games), no NHL ref has called a man-advantage penalty. Just a coincidence, probably.
BY THE WAY...
Last season John Cavanaugh, a 6'11" senior center, led Hamilton College in upstate New York to its third ECAC Division III basketball title in four years. A first-team All-America who averaged 21.5 points and 12.6 rebounds per game, Cavanaugh has an outside chance of being drafted by the NBA. That would be remarkable because only one Hamilton athlete has ever been drafted by a pro team.
What is even more remarkable is that, like Michigan pitcher Jim Abbott (page 28), Cavanaugh has a handicap. Because of a congenital defect, he has only a thumb and half an index finger on his right hand. His coach, Thomas Murphy, says, "On at least two occasions, opposing coaches didn't know he was handicapped until after the game. John doesn't make a big thing out of it—it's all he's ever known. He just feels he can do whatever he wants to." If the NBA doesn't call, Cavanaugh can still choose between pro basketball in Sweden and a job with Salomon Brothers, the Wall Street firm.