Fighting will get serious look from NHL
MONTREAL -- With the recent death of minor league player Don Sanderson, who went into a coma and later died after a fight, and the shocking images of American Hockey League player Garrett Klotz going into convulsions after a fight Friday night, NHL GMs will begin breaking down what, if anything, to do about fighting at their annual meetings in Florida in early March.
Some, including New Jersey Devils president and GM Lou Lamoriello, predict changes are coming to how the league deals with fighting.
On Friday, St. Louis Blues president John Davidson said he is a traditionalist when it comes to changing the game, "but you have to evolve."
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman likened the fighting study to how the league approached the successful revamping of officiating standards coming out of the lockout in terms of its scope.
He warned, however, that banning fighting from the game altogether is a non-starter.
"I don't think there's any appetite to abolish fighting from the game," Bettman said.
Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke also said he thinks there is no chance fighting will be taken out of the game.
"What happens when you have a tragedy of this nature -- and that's what it was, it was a tragedy -- there tends to be an overreaction in the media," Burke said after the NHL's board of governors met in the historic Windsor Hotel, the same hotel in which the NHL was formed in 1917. "Our job is to make sure this game is run properly and not to overreact. I intend to listen.
"As I said earlier, I think any discussion about the elimination or abolition of fighting will be a very brief one," Burke said. "I don't think there's any support for that whatsoever of a meaningful nature. But a discussion of how we do this, how players do that part of the job, I think it's important and I think that's going to be a lengthy one."
Among the issues the GMs will ponder surrounding the rules of engagement are the so-called appointment fights in which two players, usually players with reputations as fighters, will agree to fight. In the AHL fight in question, Kevin Westgarth of Manchester and Klotz, of the Philadelphia Phantoms, went at it before the opening faceoff.
They will look at timing -- when the first punch is thrown. Is it thrown before the other player is prepared, and if so, does it warrant supplemental discipline? There is also a trend that worries some GMs that players are jumping into fights after they or a teammate has been subjected to a clean but hard bodycheck.
"Just because your teammate gets hit doesn't mean there should be an automatic fight," Davidson said.
"It used to be if someone drilled you with a clean check, you went back to the bench and your own teammates said, you know, keep your head up. Now someone feels they have to answer the bell even if it's not a star player," said Burke, who built a team in Anaheim that led the NHL in fighting the season it won the Stanley Cup in 2006-07. "It seems to becoming routine. No one wants an increase in the level of fighting. Not anyone I know. I certainly don't. It's something we've got to look at."
Between now and the March meetings, senior executive vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell will break down fights so GMs can see how they begin, whether helmets come off or are taken off on purpose, how tight chin straps are secured and what happens during take-downs, when one player pulls down his opponent.
Although there has long been a debate about what role, if any, fighting has in the game -- Bettman said he expected to examine fighting and then be done with the issue early in his tenure as commissioner, and yet it remains a sometimes contentious issue 16 years later -- the major issue facing the GMs will be finding a consensus.
Many of the GMs believe fighting has so long been part of the fabric of the game, it would be difficult to take it out. There is also the fact that many fans enjoy fighting.
Bettman said fighting is part of the emotion of a game and that it acts, in some ways, as a "thermostat" in a game.
"I think it's become integral in terms of how the game is played," he said. "And I believe most of our fans enjoy that aspect of our game."
The question, then, will be finding common ground to try and make fighting as safe as possible. It will not be easy.
"We will, as we always do with what's going on in our game, be evaluative, self-reflective and we will have a good, candid discussion," Bettman said. "We're not going to have any immediate knee-jerk reactions."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.