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In 1986 the NHL tightened its rules concerning fighting. An obvious instigator, for instance, now draws a two-minute penalty in addition to whatever other punishment may be meted out to him. But as last week's melees demonstrated, additional measures are needed.
Inasmuch as image is a big part of what a professional sports league sells, the point has often been made that by allowing fighting, the NHL is selling exactly the image it wants. "There is no question that image is a concern of ours," says league president John Ziegler. "I've said this to the board every year: We can work on our image all year long, and all it takes is one stupid night like the one in L.A. to wipe it all out."
Yet Ziegler remains unconvinced that the NHL's image is damaged by the league's refusal to do away with fighting altogether. After the Oilers-Kings game, O'Neill, Ziegler's top aide, remarked with seeming pride that in half the NHL's games there isn't as much as a single fight. What Ziegler refuses to face up to is the need for the NHL to set an example for all hockey leagues to follow. Right now the league is sending out the wrong message.
"There is no consensus," Ziegler says, "toward eliminating fighting completely. I have an opinion on the matter, but my responsibility on an issue that is so debatable is to allow the teams a fair debate and a fair decision on the issue. If it was threatening our business or sport, I would organize or galvanize toward my point of view, as I have done on critical issues in the past. But I don't look at this as a threat."
Hence one can come to no other conclusion than that NHL owners believe violence sells—and who cares if Peewee Leaguers beat up one another too.
"I think that's overstating it," says New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello. "Some people in the game may want to keep it [violence] because they think it sells. But there are also those within the game who don't think we can justify it at all.
"Whether getting rid of it will increase the risk of high-sticking, or whether it will hurt our image, I don't know," he adds. "I coached in college, so I believe more sticks would be used. I'm not persuaded that fighting, if it's controlled, is a negative part of the game. But I do know this about fighting in the NHL right now: As a tactic, it works."