Hockey is a sport that fosters passionate debate, but few topics have as entrenched supporters and dissenters as much as fighting.
To some, fighting is at the core of the game and an integral part of the NHL; others see it as barbaric, outdated, and, in the age of increasing awareness of concussions, downright irresponsible.
This year saw an increase in the debate and new momentum for those that oppose sparring matches. With head injuries becoming an increasing concern, the fear that fights might lead to concussions is a key argument against it. One of the better recent examples of that is George Parros, who has dealt with two fight-related concussions this season.
The first one you could write off as an unfortunate accident, but the second is harder to dismiss:
Even before Parros’ second head injury of 2013, Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman wondered why the league was handing out suspensions for head hits courtesy of checks, but fighting was still penalized by a mere five-minute penalty.
“We’re stuck in the middle and need to decide what kind of sport do we want to be,” Yzerman argued. “Either anything goes and we accept the consequences, or take the next step and eliminate fighting.”
Yzerman was joined by Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero, Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, and legendary coach Scotty Bowman in his call for change.
At the same time, there’s clearly a fair amount of fan support for fighting, at least among PHT readers that overwhelmingly voted it belongs in the NHL. The players have continually, and overwhelmingly, supported its role in the game, too. Ditto for general managers like Calgary’s Brian Burke.
Why the support for fighting? Depends who you ask. Some advocates support dropping the gloves as a form of entertainment and an expression of the ferocity of the sport; others argue it actually prevents injuries by allowing players to police themselves. Still others feel fights can stop a bad situation from getting worse.
The latter is certainly the belief of New Jersey Devils enforcer Cam Janssen, who suggested that Boston’s Shawn Thornton’s recent attack on Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik wouldn’t have happened if Orpik had agreed to fight after delivering a hard hit to forward Loui Eriksson.
Other players, like Detroit’s Daniel Alfredsson, feel that’s an old-school view that shouldn’t be followed any more. Instead, Alfredsson thinks that hits should be ruled on by the referees and left at that.
Finally, it’s worth noting that not all fights are created equal. When Philadelphia goaltender Ray Emery skated the length of the ice to force Capitals netminder Braden Holtby to fight him, there was widespread condemnation.
NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan “hated it” and commissioner Gary Bettman also voiced his displeasure.
But while this year’s incidents may have helped fuel the debate over fighting, it doesn’t sound like any major rule changes are on the near horizon for the NHL, which has repeatedly maintained “there is not an appetite to change the rules with respect to fighting.”