Fighting in Hockey: Why NHL GMs Have It All Wrong

Andy BenschSenior Writer IMarch 15, 2009

The average die-hard hockey fan knows that fighting is just a part of the game. Hockey is naturally the most physical team sport in the world, and fights are bound to come about.

There is no argument that American football is more physical, because for every "jacked-up" hit that the NFL promotes in their highlights, there are at least 10 hits of the same severity in a hockey game.

With that being said, the scuffles in hockey are much more prevalent and intense than any other sport, even American football; therefore, fighting in hockey is practically unavoidable in certain circumstances.

When a player of the caliber of NHL poster boys Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin get roughed up, slashed, boarded, etc., their teammates are going to go after the opposing player who committed such an action against their top player. That is simply how hockey works.

Players make it known to the other team that it is not OK to take liberties with certain teammates, and if they do, there will be a response.

For example, last year, in the opening round of the playoffs, San Jose Sharks captain Patrick Marleau was pummeled into the boards on a questionable hit by Flames defenseman Cory Sarich. No penalty was called on the play, but one could make the argument for a boarding or elbowing call to have been made.

Now, immediately after the hit, Sharks defenseman Matt Carle (not known for his physicality, and especially not his fighting) took a few punches at Sarich for running his captain. That is simply the correct and natural response of a hockey player.

Another example was earlier this season when LA Kings defenseman Denis Gauthier was suspended two games for his hit on Sharks captain Patrick Marleau. But after the ensuing whistle, when the puck was covered by the Kings netminder, a scuffle between multiple players started due to the ill feelings about the hit on Marleau.

But perhaps the best, most simple example of scrums and fights in the NHL is when a puck is covered by the goalie and opposing players take extra whacks at the puck after the whistle. The defenders then start taking swings at the players who were whacking their goalie. Now more often than not, no actual fight occurs between two individual players, but it can and does happen.

With all that said, the NHL and their GMs want to make changes to what extent fighting is tolerated. Fights that are started in response to a hit will result in an instigator penalty to the player defending his teammate by starting a fight.

This is just the stupidest thing the NHL could do in an attempt to alter the current way fights come about in the league.

It is understandable to want to minimize the amount of fights in the NHL. Even though many fans love fighting, with some casual fans watching just for the fights, there are a significant amount of fans turned away because of this inherent violence.

Therefore, it makes total sense to try and diminish the amount of fighting, but keep it around at the same time.

However, adding instigator penalties is not the way to go about it.

If the NHL wants to decrease fighting in its game, then it needs to get rid of the use for "goons," such as Jody Shelley of the Sharks, who has only three points on the year, averages less than six minutes of ice time per game—yet has 93 penalty minutes in 55 games.

Derek Boogaard of the Minnesota Wild has just three assists in 48 games for the Wild, but has amassed 85 penalty minutes.

Both these players are shown in the article photo doing their little pre-fight circles, like they're boxers on ice.

Another goon type of a player is the Anaheim Ducks' George Parros, who actually has nine points on the year, but with 103 penalty minutes, is used primarily as a "enforcer."

Now the overwhelming majority of fights that these players take part in start right after a face-off, and they almost always begin with each participant doing circles around one another in order to see who is going to make the first move.

If the NHL wants to diminish fighting in their league, there are other ways.  

They should enforce game misconducts for fights randomly ensued within 20 seconds of a face-off between two players who have no obvious reason to fight, other than the fact that they are both goons. 

I would include fights that are initiated mid-shift between two players that are hacking and slashing each other away from the play. 

These types of fights slow the game down and contribute nothing. A fight between Jody Shelley and George Parros in a Sharks-Ducks game doesn't get those die-hard Sharks and Ducks fans excited. What would get the fans of those teams excited is a fight between Joe Thornton and Chris Pronger.

Now a fight between those caliber of players doesn't happen all too often because they are skilled players who can't afford to get injured or be in the penalty box for five minutes.

But in any case, fights that break out spontaneously because of consistent physical play are the fights that the die-hards find entertaining, not goon-on-goon.

And taking away the need for an enforcer will also enhance the beauty of the game as more deserving players with actual hockey talent will replace them in the lineup. Fans come to watch the Henrik Zetterbergs and Pavel Datsyuks of the world, not the Donald Brashears.

Some fans do argue that the "goons" being referred to in this article act as "sheriffs" in that they police the game and make sure liberties aren't taken in the form of cheap shots.

Well, to counter that point, there are two things to bring up.

1) Currently, the NHL referees are more focused on calling the tini-tiny hooks, holds, and interference penalties, while letting more serious boarding and elbowing calls go.

If the NHL wants to deter fights from happening, then they should have a meeting with their referees and get them on board for making sure they call all the dangerous penalties that have the potential to cause injuries.

2) There are still plenty of power-forwards and hard-nosed defenseman that can "police" the game and step up for their less-inclined-to-fight teammates if need be.

The Sharks have players such as Ryane Clowe, Douglass Murray, Mike Grier, Jeremy Roenick, Rob Blake, Brad Lukowich, and even Joe Thornton—to a certain extent—who can stick up for themselves and their teammates. The Sharks don't need a Jody Shelley, who doesn't even make the playoffs for most playoff games.

Therefore, if the NHL seriously wants to diminish fighting, then they should get rid of the goons. Don't penalize the natural response of a hockey player to come to the aid of his teammate by fighting an opposing player who just cheap-shot-ed the aforementioned teammate.

Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL GMs in favor of assigning new instigator penalties need to wake up and smell the coffee. Fights are apart of the game, but goons don't have to be.