How to Make Everyone Happy in the NHL Fighting Debate

Steve MacfarlaneFeatured ColumnistDecember 12, 2013

EDMONTON, AB - DECEMBER 5: Luke Gazdic #20 of the Edmonton Oilers fights Patrick Bordeleau #58 of the Colorado Avalanche during an NHL game at Rexall Place on December 5, 2013 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The Oilers defeated the Avalanche 8-2. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
Derek Leung/Getty Images

When it comes to fighting in the NHL, trying to please both sides of the debate might be tougher than taking a punch from one of the league’s heavyweights.

Some fans feel there’s no sane reason for fighting in hockey. Another group views it as an integral part of the game.  

The truth probably lies somewhere in-between.

You’ll never get rid of fighting altogether. Even an automatic ejection and suspension likely wouldn’t deter an act executed in a fit of anger. You can’t expect 38 grown men playing an up-tempo, physical sport to just skate away. Not while a blast of adrenaline is coursing through their veins because they feel threatened or attacked, regardless of whether or not their thoughts are rational at the time.

So Step 1 for all involved is to accept the fact that fighting, in some form, is going to take place regardless of any rule changes that may arrive in the coming months, years and decades.

Step 2 is the realization that fighting is continuously evolving. That concept won’t dissuade dedicated pacifists who love everything about the game of hockey except for the fisticuffs from advocating against it. But the advancement in fighting over the last few years should make you feel a little better about the future.

There are very few, if any, NHL players taking up one of the 23 precious roster spots for their fighting abilities alone. Yes, there are still enforcers, but these guys aren’t one of the two or three immobile, puttering goons of the old days who played two minutes a night and spent another 10 or 20 in the penalty box. The modern-day mauler might not score regularly, but they have the ability to contribute in other areas of the game, battling in corners or posting the occasional point.

Former heavyweight Jody Shelley talked about the evolution on Sportsnet 960 radio during a recent road trip through Western Canada:

"Fighting has a place in the NHL. The way that it’s evolved, the player isn’t 275 pounds, playing 40 seconds and sitting at the end of the bench, being very disposable, not being very reliable on the ice. Those days are long gone. He has to be some kind of asset, on three or four levels. A good guy, a leader in the room."

Calgary Flames winger Brian McGrattan is slightly insulted at the insinuation guys of his ilk aren’t needed.

“I’ve been in the lineup every night so obviously I can do something more,” says Brian McGrattan, who has dropped the gloves five times in 26 games this season but doesn’t lead his team in total penalty minutes.

MacGrattan also has an assist, averages a shot on goal per game and is north of 5:30 in ice time on any given night. He’s also on the low end of the scale.

For the most part, the top 10 NHL pugilists before this week’s games see pretty regular action.

More Than a Pair of Fists
PlayerTeamFights/PIMsPointsAvg. Ice Time
Derek DorsettNYR9/97311:33
Chris NeilOTT8/88511:43
Antoine RousselDAL6/861311:59
NHL.com

There you have it, a couple of bits for the pro-fighting side. Now, for those of you who glorify the bloodiness of a brawl, there are some aspects of fighting that even you should be able to offer up as a sacrifice for the sake of peace.

Like goalie fights.

As bizarrely entertaining as it can be to see guys fight as hard with their bulky equipment to free up an arm as they do with their opponent, they’re pretty pointless—as Philadelphia Flyers backstop Ray Emery proved this season with his attack on Washington Capitals counterpart Braden Holtby.

Even NHL heavyweights see that as a place they can capitulate.

“I don’t think anything’s going to really change except for the goalie fights,” says McGrattan.

That’s where he’s wrong. It might take a while, but with the prevalence of concussions, the looming lawsuits and the growing need for society to protect its citizens from themselves, the rules will inevitably change.

After the guidelines for goaltenders are altered, the next target will be staged fights—the ones that don’t happen spontaneously; the ones used as a motivational tactic; the ones the heavyweights see as one of their duties on the ice.

Staged fights are the ones that you see at the drop of the puck, premeditated and seemingly pointless.

“At the right point in time, it does have a purpose,” argues McGrattan. “It provides momentum. I think it does make a point.”

The NHL should make a point to take fighting away as a strategy. It’s the key battle in the future of hockey fights.

How exactly to do it could trigger another debate altogether, but it should be a simple task to separate fights that seem spontaneous from those that appear planned.

It’s time to start tiering fighting penalties into those two categories.

It’s also time to start using the rules that already exist, like the instigator penalty. Give it to the person who starts every single impulsive fight, regardless of whether it was an instant reaction to a hit you didn’t feel was fair, or comes from a battle along the boards.

If they do it again, it’s a game misconduct. After three instigator penalties in a season, you’re suspended for two games.

BUFFALO, NY - NOVEMBER 19: Referee Dan O'Halloran #13 signals Chris Stewart #25 of the St. Louis Blues for a minor penalty in their game against the Buffalo Sabres on November 19, 2013 at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bill Wipp
Bill Wippert/Getty Images

Those rules already exist, they’re just not enforced often enough. Referees are uneasy about calling it.

Just as the game’s managers are hesitant to give too much power to referees and the subjective nature of calls, most refs pride themselves in not being the story of a game.

But it’s time to give them a critical role in limiting the traditionally penalized fighting majors to times when it’s most acceptable, when two angry men escalate a battle for space into a mutual bout.

And when it comes to the staged fights, the so-called motivational scraps, just kick both parties out immediately and suspend them for their next game for good measure.