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The NHL is such an easy target, I wish it weren't necessary to keep dumping on it. It's a good league in many respects. Most of the world's best hockey players are in it, for one thing, and those who aren't—namely, the Soviets—regularly compete against various sorts of NHL teams for our enjoyment. The league's players don't go out on strike, which recommends them in many circles. Rather, they increase their pension benefits by participating in events like last month's memorable Canada Cup. Not only was that tournament a financial success, earning approximately $1.2 million for the pension plan, but it was an artistic masterpiece as well.
The best-of-three final between Team Canada and the Soviet Union will go down as one of the most memorable series ever. Each game was decided by the score of 6-5, with Canada prevailing on a goal in the last two minutes of Game 3. The first two games went into overtime; the great players scored the great goals; and the goaltending was best when it mattered most—in overtime.
Oh, and there was no fighting.
It's not that fighting isn't possible in the Canada Cup. Fighting is possible almost anywhere. You can punch someone out in a shopping mall, should you be so inclined, but if you do, you can expect to be punished or. at the very least, sued. So most people don't fight without a very good reason. At the Canada Cup the punishment for fighting was the same as it is in college hockey: Offending players would be thrown out of the game in progress and the next one as well. So the players didn't bother. The result was wonderful hockey.
That's a good rule: Fight, and you sit for two games. Now, I'm not going to turn purple in the face endorsing it. As I said, the NHL is too easy a target, and if its players want to fight when they play among themselves. I'm almost tempted to say. Let them. Most of those one-on-one square-offs are strictly territorial squabbles anyway, a couple of rams butting heads. There's precious little rage involved, except maybe on the part of some overwrought fans who seem more interested in seeing bare-knuckle fisticuffs than hockey.
But mayhem? That's another matter. Last month the NHL Board of Governors finally took some long-overdue steps toward drawing a distinction between one-on-one fights, unsavory as they are, and the bench-clearing brawls that amount to athletic anarchy. There were seven of the latter incidents last season; that's not so many, I suppose, about one for every 132 games played. But each of those free-for-alls was so disturbing that even one would have been too many. The damage these melees do to the league's image, while difficult to measure exactly, can hardly be overstated. This is especially true when one occurs in the playoffs, as happened in the Wales Conference championship series between Philadelphia and Montreal, two of the NHL's showcase teams. That fracas started at the tail end of the pregame warmups. One player even returned to the ice in his slippers.
The new rule says that the first player from each team to leave the bench for the purpose of joining a fight will be suspended for 10 games. Any second player leaving the bench will be suspended for five games. Furthermore a coach can be suspended for either five or three games, depending on whether his team left the bench first. There's also a graduated series of fines for individuals and franchises, including a $25,000 biggie to any club entering into multiplayer altercations before or after a game, or between periods. Any club that continues to pay a suspended player his salary or, worse, pays his fine, will be assessed a whopping $100,000.
Sounds good from here. A 10-game suspension—one-eighth of the regular season—is no wrist slap. But the NHL can do more. Mass brawling is merely violence in its most visible form. The league has to apply the same let's-get-tough attitude to violence whenever and however it occurs on the ice. Swinging a stick at an opponent with all your might, butt-ending him in the face, spearing him in the gut, kicking at him while wearing skates—these acts are common in the NHL. Certainly they occur more often than seven times a year.
Something else the league can do is enforce its rules with diligence in the playoffs. Last spring it made a mockery of its disciplinary procedures when it waited until after the playoffs before suspending Philadelphia goaltender Ron Hextall for eight games for a vicious stick-swinging incident in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals. As a result. Hextall's suspension won't take effect until the start of this season.
And now let us carry this wishful thinking a step further. Wouldn't it be nice if the league didn't have to play the enforcer? This could happen if the players and coaches would only apply the lesson of the Canada Cup: that it's possible, with a little self-control, simply to play hockey.