IT'S TIME FOR THE NHL TO STOP THE HOOLIGANISM
In purporting to deal with the thuggery rampant in their game, NHL officials in recent days have gone through the usual motions of suspending and fining miscreants and launching investigations. Don't be fooled. It's those same officials who are most to blame for the inexcusable violence. They have tolerated and even promoted the cycle of physical intimidation and retaliation that reduces all too many NHL games to shambles and obscures the talents of stars like Los Angeles' Marcel Dionne, who would rather skate, stickhandle and play good hockey than be a party to Slap Shot-style hooliganism. But Dionne finds this difficult. "You stand in front of the net and a guy will spear you with a stick or punch you in the face," he complains. "And [the referees] don't call it."
The NHL's lack of firm leadership helped bring about the disgraceful spectacle Thursday night at Boston Garden, where a brawl broke out seven seconds into a game between the Bruins and the North Stars and was followed by a dozen other fights, one of which spilled into the runway leading to the Minnesota locker room. The ugly night produced an NHL-record 406 penalty minutes and the ejection of 12 players. Minnesota Coach Glen Sonmor later admitted he had ordered his players to "do something" to refute opponents' taunts that his team was "gutless," and he warned that when the two teams play in Minnesota this week, Boston Coach Gerry Cheevers had "better bring a basket to take his head home in."
Reprehensible though Sonmor's words and deeds were, one NHL general manager says, "The league office has stood idly by while other teams have bullied the North Stars and taken endless cheap shots at them. Everybody knows that the North Stars have complained repeatedly to the league, but nothing has ever been done about it. So the North Stars took the law into their own hands, and how can you really blame them?"
The North Stars weren't the only vigilantes in NHL rinks the last two weeks. Montreal Canadien Right Wing Chris Nilan sucker-punched the Washington Capitals' Alan Hangsleben and flung official Paul Flaherty to the ice, later explaining, "I went out there to get somebody." In another game, Washington's Paul Mulvey slammed his stick against the penalty box and had to be restrained from attacking its occupant, Quebec's Kim Clackson. In Los Angeles six players were ejected when fighting got out of hand during a game between the Kings and Flyers. In Vancouver, there was a bench-clearing brawl between the Flyers and the Canucks, and the teams had to be sent to their dressing rooms with 2:26 left in the second period.
The culpability of the NHL brass begins with its preposterous view that "fighting is part of hockey." This policy is reflected both in the toothless penalties the NHL imposes for fighting and in a statement last fall to a Congressional subcommittee investigating sports violence in which NHL President John Ziegler said the league opposed "fighting just for the sake of fighting," but viewed "spontaneous" fighting as a justifiable "outlet for the frustration in hockey."
But fighting as an outlet for frustration has no place in sport. Like hockey, football is an emotional, contact game, but fighting isn't allowed—period. Even in boxing, which is fighting, the emphasis is on the control, not the venting of frustrations. A flustered boxer can always quit as Roberto Duran did, but he isn't permitted to exorcise his demons by hitting his opponent below the belt. There's no reason things should be any different in the NHL. Hockey is a swift, rugged sport in which crisp body checks are an integral part of the action. But the game is at its best only when there's no fighting, a fact borne out by the relatively clean play in amateur hockey and brought home to even the most casual fans by the stirring U.S.- U.S.S.R. showdown at Lake Placid. Significantly, the most gifted NHL players are those who can deal with their frustrations without fighting. These include not only fancy-Dan performers like Dionne, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky (page 18) and Guy Lafleur but also such bone-jarring clean checkers as Bob Gainey and Don Marcotte.
Rather than interpret rules to allow players to take out their frustrations by fighting, Ziegler should impose penalties that would rid the NHL of those unable to control themselves. In an open letter to Ziegler at the start of this season (SI, Oct. 13, 1980), Mark Mulvoy, then SI's hockey editor and now assistant managing editor, suggested that fighting could be drastically reduced by imposition of a five-game suspension the first time a player drops his gloves or swings his stick and a 10-game suspension the second time—with the player's place on the roster left vacant. Another reform that could curb hooliganism: make a penalized team play shorthanded for the full term of a penalty, no matter how many goals its opponent scores.
Unfortunately, the NHL may have a motive other than the venting of frustration for condoning fighting and dirty play, a motive more appropriate to roller derby or professional wrestling. Asked last month about the notorious pugnacity of the Philadelphia Flyers, who have led the NHL in penalty minutes nine straight years, Ziegler replied that the Flyers are the NHL's best draw, then added, revealingly, "If the other 20 teams were as successful, I'd be pleased, regardless of how they achieved such success."
There's no doubt that the NHL sees fighting as good for business, pandering as it does to the blood lust of those spectators who happen to be turned on by brawling; but then, the hockey business is hardly booming. This is just one more reason the NHL's ruling hierarchy must do something, once and for all, about gratuitous violence. Failing that, people who love hockey can only pray that the NHL will pass into more capable hands or be supplanted by a rival league that has the real interests of the sport at heart.