Of course, if you really wanted to cut down on blows to the head, wouldn't you outlaw the activity in which the primary purpose is to ... hit the other guy in the head? The NHL's laudable determination to reduce head shots does not extend to its policy on fighting, which earns combatants five minutes in the penalty box (and maybe an extra two for instigating) but seldom results in fines or suspensions.
The NHL has reported that only 8% of the concussions incurred by its players last season were fight-related. It may be more accurate to say that 8% of reported concussions were fight-related. Not every concussion makes it into the study. "I know the NHL tries to keep up with it," says ex-ruffian Lyndon Byers, whose 10 turbulent NHL seasons included nine in Boston. "But it's tough. I mean, you're in a fight, you get punched out, you black out, you go blank, and deep down there's a little voice going, C'mon, c'mon, come back! So you come back and see the guy's fist eight inches from your face. So is that a concussion? Would I tell [team doctors] that I couldn't play the next day? No."
Colin Campbell doesn't pretend that these policies aren't at odds with one another. Campbell, the NHL's senior executive VP of hockey operations, who performed Shanahan's job for the previous 13 years, admits that the NHL's no-to-head-shots/yes-to-fighting disconnect is wider than the gap between Bobby Clarke's front teeth. "If you took someone from, say, New Zealand, to an NHL game and explained to him what our current issues are, then two guys dropped the gloves and started whacking each other, he'd say, 'Well, then, how can they be allowed to do that?'"
Campbell notes approvingly that fighting has evolved from something barbaric to, well, something less barbaric. There are very few bouts in the postseason for the simple reason that teams are unwilling to give up a power play. Unlike in the 1980s, Campbell notes, combatants stop throwing punches when they get their opponent down on the ice. As of 2005 players instigating fights in the last five minutes of a game are suspended for a game, and their coach is fined $10,000. There are sound reasons to throw down on the ice, in other words, but late-game message-sending is no longer one of them.
When is a fight acceptable, necessary, honorable? When an opponent is "taking liberties" with one of your most talented teammates. By keeping fighting in the game, goes the thinking, the NHL keeps its game cleaner. Through the threat of swift vigilante justice, fighters create space—provide "a fear-free environment," as pro-pugilist Maple Leafs G.M. Brian Burke puts it—for the team's more talented players, the goal scorers and artistes.
Campbell has a problem with so-called "staged" fights, premeditated bouts arranged ahead of time (by e-mail, if some tales are to be believed) and not spawned by anything that's taken place on the ice. "That's an aspect of fighting that's not right, not acceptable, and should be looked at."
But as for fighting in general, Campbell goes on, "I think it still has a place."
Following the 2004--05 lockout, NHL players returned to a much faster game, with officials instructed to be far more vigilant for restraining fouls like hooking, holding and interference. The resulting, wide-open, end-to-end hockey was a windfall for skilled players and fans interested in thrilling rushes and highlight-reel goals. It was less kind to a certain species of enforcer, the ponderous, hulking pugilist who fought well but had no other discernible skills.
"The pace of the new game left some of the bigger, heavier guys behind," says Ducks tough guy George Parros, whose 27 fights last season led the NHL. "Most of the guys on the job now are able to keep up with the pace of play."
Parros played four years at Princeton, graduating with a degree in economics in 2003. He broke into the NHL in '05—the first postlockout season—with the Kings and is now in his sixth year in Anaheim, a stretch rarely seen among designated fighters, whom G.M.'s tend to view as expendable, easily replaceable commodities, like kickers in football. Asked for the secret of Parros's longevity, Ducks coach Randy Carlyle mentions the superb fitness of his shredded, 6'5", 227-pound tough guy but spends more time complimenting his judgment. "He understands the job—when to do it and when not to do it."