Fighting in hockey is a tradition quite possibly older than the Stanley Cup itself.
It is an element of the game that is sewn into very fabric of our sport.
Hockey without fighting would be like...
...it would just be weird, okay?
Two unfortunate events surrounding the culture of pugilism in professional hockey have brought national scrutiny to the sport in recent weeks.
First, there was the tragic death of Don Sanderson, who died from injuries sustained in a fight on Dec. 12, 2008. A 21-year-old rookie defenseman with the Whitby Dulops of the Ontario Hockey League, Sanderson fell into a coma after hitting his head on the playing surface at the conclusion of the fight.
He never regained consciousness and died three weeks later.
Then there was of Garrett Klotz of the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms, who required hospitalization after he lost consciousness and went into convulsions after an on-ice altercation last weekend.
Both players were injured when their heads hit the playing surface without the protection of a helmet.
Klotz has since been released from the hospital, but the incident made national headlines, intensifying the soul-searching and debate between hockey purists and hockey progressives with regard to the validity of fisticuffs in the modern age of hockey.
In newspaper columns, online magazine articles, blogs, message boards, and reader feedback forums, advocates and detractors have been squaring off in recent weeks, dropping the gloves for a bare-knuckled debate on the subject of hockey's violent but time honored tradition, often with a vitriol reserved for few subjects within the sport.
As a hockey fan, I find myself conflicted with regard to the subject of fighting in hockey. After all, I would be lying through my fingertips if I were to tell you that I didn't enjoy the mayhem associated with the occasional donnybrook. Just look at my name as your proof.
Conversely, I'll be the first to call bull spit on the righteous indignation of the purist who insists that fighting is a necessary element of the game; that it gives the players the ability to police themselves with the threat of mutually assured destruction for those that would make a living off of cheap hits and wild sticks.
The "policing" argument falls flat on its face every time two goons line up next to each other at the face-off circle.
You know the drill.
- The puck hits the ice.
- The gloves come off for no reason whatsoever.
- Then the two guys on each team's bench that play three minutes a game go at in a whirlwind of haymakers.
- The stadium erupts into wild (and dirt cheap) applause and, somehow, hockey players are all the safer for it.
I cannot be counted amongst the ranks of hockey fans that want to ban fighting from hockey. After all, it does occasionally add an element of excitement to the game, and it is indeed a facet of the game that makes hockey unique in the realm of team sports.
However, I will be the first to say there needs to be some controls in place to ensure the safety of the combatants.
For all of the debate that has resulted with regard to fighting in hockey, the lack of compromise amongst all parties involved has been surprising. To fight or not to fight has been the sole focus of the argument, without the slightest indication of either side finding any kind of middle ground on the subject.
I propose two suggestions that will reduce the incidents of fighting in hockey, but will leave the tradition of fisticuffs in the sport intact, and will hopefully shut everyone up.
That being said, I welcome your comments and suggestions below the fold.
The Ronnybrook Accord mandates:
Amend the "Rob Ray" Rule to Include Helmets
Rule 47.13 of the NHL Rulebook, also known as the "Rob Ray Rule" states:
A player who engages in fisticuffs and whose sweater is removed (completely off his torso), other than through the actions of his opponent in the altercation or through the actions of the Linesman, shall be assessed a game misconduct penalty.
A player who engages in fisticuffs and whose sweater is not properly "tied-down" (sweater properly fastened to pants), and who loses his sweater (completely off his torso) in that altercation, shall receive a game misconduct.
In our most recent examples of how dangerous fighting in hockey can be, both Sanderson and Klotz were not wearing helmets when their heads struck the playing surface. With Sanderson, his helmet became dislodged during the altercation. In the incident last weekend, Klotz willingly removed his helmet before engaging with his opponent.
If the NHL were to mandate that helmets are required to be properly secured before and during any altercation, the risk of head injuries as a result of falls and take downs would plummet.
In short: the helmet stays on at the beginning of the fight, and if at any point during the altercation a player's protective head gear becomes dislodged, the fight is over at once, with the linesmen instructed to intervene immediately. Players who continue with fisticuffs as the linesmen intervene would face mandatory disciplinary action by the league.
Three Strikes Rule
The top 10 players leading the NHL in fighting majors have combined for offensive production of 29 goals and 40 assists for a paltry 69 points of offensive production through 418 contests this season.
If you remove David Clarkson (a New Jersey Devils forward with an impressive mixture of offensive and pugilistic abilities) from the list, along with his 10 goals and 10 assists, your average goon who makes a living riding the NHL pine for 55 minutes a game is currently on pace for an average of 11 points or fewer this season.
If the NHL is to allow fisticuffs to continue, the culture of fighting must carry as much risk to the outcome of a game as it does reward, with mandatory game misconducts and suspensions for players who exceed a threshold of three fighting majors in a season.
Such a threshold would force NHL players to pick their bouts carefully, if at all. If such a mandate was in place this season, offensively significant players such as Ryan Getzlaf, Mike Richards, Jerome Iginla, and Dion Phaneuf would all be one step away from depriving their respective teams of their services with league mandated suspensions.
The luxury of having players such as Eric Godard, Derrick Boogaard, and Riley Cote—who have combined for one goal and five assists in 116 games this season—on an NHL roster is that when they skate to the penalty box, there is zero impact to the offensive or defensive fortunes of the team.
With a three strikes rule in place for fighting that carries accelerated suspensions for each infraction beyond the threshold, the NHL goon will become extinct, and fighting will live on in the sport of hockey through the participation of those that bring more to their hockey teams than the ability to throw down and have at it.
If the NHL is to allow fighting, let there be a price tag attached to the altercation that actually carries some meaning, effectively putting an end to the UFC sideshow that is the fight at the drop of the puck.