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Hockey fights are a double-edged sword

3/27/2007 - NHL

As has been written in this space more times than Eddie Murphy sang "party
all the time" in his 1985 song "Party All The Time," I enjoy NHL fights.

NHL fights "work" because the fighters are almost always willing participants who usually
don't suffer serious injuries. The fighters also often tap each other on
the head, smile and say in their expressions, "That was fun" or "Thank
you."

The fights also "work" because the customers in the rink and at home
watching on TV are exceedingly entertained. This is the case because NHL
fights are very easy to decipher and because fights, like Bowflex
commercials, televise very well. Some people claim they have a difficult
time following the puck, but they never claim they can't follow the fists.

NHL fights also work because after I see one, I don't have the sudden urge
to wander into the woods and randomly strangle helpless squirrels. Watching
NHL fights doesn't make me, or I believe anyone, more violent. NHL fights don't get my children closer to their violence threshold either. I don't
think anything really gets us closer to any of our questionable thresholds
unless it involves a ladle of Jack Daniels and a sledgehammer. We largely
are what we are and there is nothing Darcy Tucker can do about it. Perhaps
small tweaks can make small differences, but that's about it. A game like
hockey cannot create or greatly alter a child's DNA. We parents can mold
our children in certain situations and instruct and teach them the beauty
and benefits of say, selflessness or good wedge play from 100 yards in, but
I don't believe the act of punching and/or getting punched in the face is a
variable we can teach our kids to be able to thrive in or tolerate. They are
born with that.

There are two kinds of people in this world: People who
don't mind getting punched in the face and those who do. There are people
who will take one to give one and there are people who will not. Wade Belak
will take one to give one. The Pet Shop Boys will not.

Now, things change when I see someone's orbital bone crushed during an NHL
fight and the player is carried off on a stretcher. In those cases, my
stomach feels like I just ate a live mackerel. In those cases, NHL fights
don't work. If this were baseball, we would have congressional hearings.

A five-minute penalty for quasi-sanctioned, permitted bareknuckle fighting
is hardly a penalty here in the 21st century. In the NBA, Carmelo Anthony
threw a weak fadeaway punch/slap that was like a balled-up sock to the face
of the Knicks' Mardy Collins and Anthony got 15 games! Baseball players are
automatically suspended for their bareknuckle fighting. The NHL penalty for
bareknuckle fighting is shorter than Soundgarden's 1991 classic,
"Outshined." Looking California, feeling Derek Boogaard. I mean, even
Ultimate fighters wear four-ounce gloves.

It makes you wonder what the NHL could get away with during a game.
Cockfighting? Pit bull vs. pit bull? A polar bear mauling a box of newborn kittens? You wonder how bareknuckle fighting, on ice, with razors on the fighters' feet is even LEGAL. Could you attempt to sanction such an activity
today if you started from scratch? Is John McCain even aware there is NHL
hockey?

Todd Fedoruk of the Flyers said in an interview with The Canadian Press, "If
it takes a three-ounce glove or something like that, that role players have
to wear which would only cover the knuckle part, maybe that's something you
can do. But I just don't think you can take fighting out of the game."

Gloves under gloves?

The NHL fighting participants ARE both willing participants as opposed to
being an unsuspecting bug to Chris Simon's windshield. And these fights
are often promoted, planned and staged, mostly because of the instigator
rule. The only things missing are ring girls and Dr. Ferdie Pacheco. It's a
tough way to make a living, but anyone who has seen the "Jackass" movies
know people will do just about anything for good money including fighting
on ice. It pays well, that's for sure.

There have been many nights I've been up until 4 a.m. watching NHL fights on
YouTube. Like I said, these fights are very entertaining until someone
gets injured. Most of the time, no one really does. And the fight charges
up a crowd. And it gives the game a little lift. The heart rate increases
without having to go to Starbucks.

But, the risk grows, with the increased size, balance and core strength of
the NHL athlete, that someone might get killed. The odds are unlikely, but
possible, that a sport that is craving to get a little more market share
might have to deal with a player killed during a fight and then have to deal
with Wolf Blitzer interviewing Gary Bettman. If most SPORTS
talk radio shows ignorantly discuss the nuances of hockey, imagine C
frickin' NN joining the misinformation super-hockey-highway.

Last Saturday on "Hockey Night In Canada," Don Cherry said that players today
are not any bigger than players of yesterday. This is completely false.
Look up the weights of these players yourself. It is also completely
ignorant not to recognize how much more powerful and agile these
players are with all of the nutritional supplements and weightlifting. These
men are machines who are unleashing extremely dangerous punches. And the
reward of an NHL salary is WAAAY more lucrative today than it was in 1975.
Back then a roster spot may have meant $30,000 a year. Today it could be $1 million.
Men in 1975 had other options to make their 30K. Most of these men today
have only one chance to make $950,000 -- by punching someone, and getting punched,
in the face.

Hockey is a dangerous game, more dangerous than football, and maybe the most
dangerous of them all. Hockey is played at continuous, high speed. It has
ice, walls and blades on everyone's feet. There are no face masks. And,
yes, there is bareknuckle fighting. These dangers help give hockey its
exhilaration and its small, niche, punk-rock market status. Some people
crave the danger of hockey, others regard it as a part of the entire package
along with grace and athleticism, and others will never recognize or stomach
hockey because of its inherent dangers with fighting front and center. In
America, hockey is a sport that is often introduced to children by their
moms as opposed to baseball which is more a dad domain. If moms view a
sport as dangerous, they will take Sparky somewhere else. Probably to
the basketball court or soccer field.

None of the above concerns me. I like the niche-ness of the NHL and the
culture of hockey. I like the fitness and challenge it gives my sons and
the reward of effort over pure skill. I love the clean, competitive hard
hitting, and I like the mystery of who really is the tougher, stronger
fighter and man and what that does to the rest of the team. This all is our
special mix that makes hockey different from all the rest. The video of
Todd Fedoruk trying to wave off the stretcher as he lay woozy on his back
flew right in the face of the Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade CRYING and being
taken off on a wheelchair in late February for a dislocated SHOULDER! If
there was ever an example of why your son or daughter should play hockey (no
fighting for the Sparkys, mom), this courageous display and attention-getting
juxtaposition was it! Safety be damned!

But, if the safety of the worker is in growing danger and the league as a
whole is playing with fire by risking a mass, corporate-cash exodus when
the lead on the "NBC Nightly News" is an NHL player getting killed via a
punch, then we might have some problems here and might need to rethink some
things. If the NHL players as a whole are OK with that risk via an offseason, secret-ballot vote, and the fans continue to pack NHL arenas, then I
have no problem keeping the status quo.

My sense is, however, that things will change soon. And Todd Fedoruk being
carried off on a stretcher in New York City was the first domino. No one in
the NHL offices wants a dad, a husband, a brother or a son killed on their
watch.

Bucci,

All I could think of last night (referring to Colton Orr/Todd Fedoruk fight)
was what you've written about before. Someday, someone is going to be
killed in a hockey fight. Do we have to wait until that happens to get it
out of the game?

Bo
Philadelphia

If we protect everybody by EXTREMELY penalizing head hits, dangerous hits,
and stick work, then we would need to have an arranged fight between two
heavyweights every time a star player gets hit. I mean, when an NFL star like Tom
Brady, LaDainian Tomlinson or Marvin Harrison is clocked on an NFL field
with a hard, clean hit, there isn't a fight. There isn't even a
disagreement. If we protect the stars and every player from illegal
activity, then these players can be hit legally. And if they have a problem
with it, THEY can fight. Oh, to have a league of Cam Neelys!


Hey Bucci,

Since fighting in hockey is a high-profile subject, I wanted to take a few
moments to sound off after the Colton Orr vs. Todd Fedoruk fight in last
night's Rangers vs. Flyers game. Due to the fact that Todd Fedoruk was taken
off the ice on a stretcher, undoubtedly the great "Fighting in Hockey"
debate will begin again. Although it is unfortunate that Fedoruk sustained
an injury, this was a statement which needed to be made by the Rangers. The
Flyers have taken liberties with the Rangers all season causing multiple
injuries, and taking cheap shots at Jaromir Jagr specifically (Darien
Hatcher elbow on Dec. 12, Fedoruk hitting Jagr without the puck on Feb. 17, etc.).
These hits, some not penalties however equally suspect, would not have been
punished by the NHL. Without an enforcer to answer to, what's to deter these
players from continuing similar actions? I'm all for a hard-hitting, tough
hockey game, but not when singling out a particular player based on his
skill level. In this example, the Orr vs. Fedoruk fight set the
tone for the game, as well as (in my mind) illustrating fighting's place in
hockey.

Justin Jaworski
Hartford, CT


The John Buccigross,
Great work as always covering hockey. I have e-mailed you the past five years
for your picks on the Frozen Four. I am curious again as to what you think
the pairings in St. Louis will look like and who your national champs are? I
think Maine and BC will go to St. Louis and I think it will be the battle of
the ND's in the title bout with the University of North Dakota raising its eighth banner.

Just curious again,
Jason Mazigian

Good call, Jason! Three out of four. The Frozen Four is in St. Louis this year and
they don't play again until April 5. ESPN2 will have the semifinal
games and ESPN will have the national championship game. I'll take Boston
College to win it all.


Hey Bucci,

So there's been an uproar out of Dallas and I'm torn. Is it Nashville's
responsibility to celebrate Modano's 503rd? I was in Dallas the night they
celebrated Patty Roy's 300th win and thought it was cool, but I wouldn't
have necessarily been upset if the team neglected to do anything. It seems
like they should have said something, but that doesn't mean they had to,
right?

Cheers,
Wes
Austin, TX

Nashville had a responsibility to address and educate its fans on this
important piece of USA Hockey history, especially considering that, in 2001,
Predators general manager David Poile was a recipient of the Lester Patrick
Award in recognition of contributions to hockey in the United States.
Yes, they should have stopped the game for a short second, had a video screen
message ready, and made an announcement recognizing this important piece of
NHL history. It's easy and good sportsmanship. The devil's advocate is that
"Do we do this the next time or when someone breaks the Russia, Canada or
Slovenia record for career goals?" I say, any time we can make a USA/NHL
history connection, especially in the United States, we should do it.
Oh by the way …
Most goals by a player born in:
Canada -- Wayne Gretzky, 894
Czech Republic -- Jaromir Jagr, 617
Finland -- Jari Kurri, 601 (Watch out for Selanne!)
Sweden -- Mats Sundin, 523
Ukraine -- Peter Bondra, 503
Russia -- Alexander Mogilny, 473
Slovenia -- Anze Kopitar, 18


Hi John,

I was wondering about Marian Gaborik. Since his return from a nasty groin
injury that has limited him to playing only 41 games this year (last I
checked), the impact that he has had on the Minnesota Wild in the second
half of this season is unbelievable. In 41 games, he has scored 49 points (28
goals and 21 assists) and is a +12 while playing in Coach Jacques Lemaire's defensive
system. Gaborik for the Hart would be a huge stretch, but as far as players
who are important to their team, Gaborik has to be up there with the Crosbys
and the Brodeurs of the NHL. So goes Gaborik, so goes the Wild. Would he
even be considered a dark-horse candidate?

Nate
Rockwell City, IA

Marian Gaborik is a player whom some casual NHL fans have actually never even heard of.
He is an extraordinary talent. He is scoring goals at a 50-goal pace
this season. If he can produce in the playoffs against the other teams'
shutdown defenders, that makes everyone else on the Wild more dangerous.
That's the value of a player like Gaborik and he, had he played a whole season,
would have been at least in the top 10 players in the league. He is a
player who does everything at top speed and he has a Joe Sakic-like release.


Hey Bucci,

I have one little complaint about Stars president Jim Lites going off on the
Nashville Predators for not acknowledging Mike Modano's milestone goal. I'm
fine with an organization being upset when one of their players reaches such
a mark and it isn't announced on the PA system. However, when that same
complaining organization didn't acknowledge a career milestone of an opposing player
in their arena, I get upset. I was at the Stars-Pens game when
Mark Recchi recorded his 500th career goal. Not once did Recchi get the
respect and acknowledgement from the Stars, nor an announcement from the PA
system. So, I believe that the Stars had it coming when that happened. Before
Lites opens up his mouth and criticizes the Preds for not "selling the
game," he needs to look under his own roof!

Devin (Pens Fan)
Dallas,TX

That is incorrect. Dallas announced it after the goal and Recchi received a
standing ovation.


John,

I'd like to get your take on the Dallas owner blasting the Predators last
week. Modano has never been a fan favorite here in Nashville ever since he
said the Preds should be retracted at the 2004 Olympics. Yes, Nashville
didn't address Modano becoming the all-time leading American-born scorer,
but this came shortly after the Tootoo incident (as the Tennessean put it:
"Robidas' face flew into Tootoo's fist") and Modano hitting Tootoo in the
back with his stick and not getting called. The crowd was booing Modano
every time he touched the puck.
It was a judgment call, and the right one in my book.

J.T. - displaced Wings fan
Nashville, TN


Bucci,

How about a little love for my Rangers? Everyone, including yourself, gave
them up for dead about three weeks ago, and since then, they have been on a
tear. Like Travis Warren has been to Blind Melon, Sean Avery has been to the
Rangers (hate to steal one of your lines, but it's appropriate, trust me).
Avery has brought a tough, physical presence to the team, as well as a
scoring touch -- 15 points in 21 games, six of which came on the power play.
And with all the injuries to this team, the kids they are bringing up from
Hartford (i.e. Ryan Callahan 6 games, 2 goals, 1 assist) have done exactly what they were
called up to do. Point being, this team has turned it on. I'm just the guy
making sure all the people who counted them out realize that it's not over
'til Nancy Wilson plays MSG.
Never miss it. Keep up the great job, and thank you for keeping hockey
alive. I NEED MY NHL2NIGHT BACK! MAKE IT HAPPEN BUCCI!

Adam Rodriguez LET'S GO RANGERS,
Orlando, FL

The cry for the return of an "NHL 2Night" type highlight show has been filling
my inbox. I guess three years of not having hockey adequately covered on a
nightly basis in the United States will do that to people. Thanks for the
love and support of the show and the sport. As far as the Rangers, they did
look dead. But, it's pretty simple to see what is going on. Jaromir
Jagr is playing at top speed again and Henrik Lundqvist is their best
player. Last year, the Rangers lost their last five regular-season games
while the Devils won their last eleven. It was not hard to see what was
coming in their playoff series. This year, the Rangers are playing much
better and if they make the playoffs they will do so playing well, because
the tight playoff races are forcing teams to. For my preseason prediction's
sake, I hope the standings stay as they were when the week began. I'll be
seven of eight in the East and West -- 14 of 16. That deserves a bonus. A
little something, you know, for the effort, you know.


Bucci,

Why isn't anybody talking about the possibility that Ryan Smyth will re-sign
with the Oilers this summer? When they traded him, their playoff hopes were
all but gone. Isn't it possible that Edmonton picked up two prospects and a
first-round pick from the Islanders knowing that they were going to miss the
playoffs and could get Smyth back this summer?

Nate Susi
Bangor, ME


I thought about that Nate, but unless Smyth lowers his price back down to $5
million a year, the Oilers will go in a different direction. They need LOTS
of help. It doesn't seem like a good fit at that price. That said, I don't see why
getting the salary down to $5 million and maybe adding an extra year can't
be achieved.


John,

Not a question this time, but can we get a mention of Oswego's first
national title in next week's column? All of us who bleed green and gold
(like Steve Levy and Linda Cohn) were pretty excited over this.

Thanks and enjoy the playoffs,
Mike
Alexandria, VA (by way of Binghamton and Oswego, NY)


JB,

Fellow Pittsburgher here. You should check out Jack Johnson's "Better
Together" as a wedding song. It's going to be mine this September. Now if I
could convince the lucky lady to name our first child (boy or girl) Sidney!

Jeremy Jester
McLean, VA


John,

Wheeler's goal was certainly sweet, but was it really better than Mike
Legg's?

Thanks
Chris
Hartford, CT

Good call. I'll call Legg's the coolest. Wheeler's, because it was in
overtime and won a conference championship, is still my choice.


John,

Wheeler's goal was phenomenal, but I think there was an even greater one in
NCAA history. Neal Broten's game-winner to beat North Dakota in the 1979
championship game was nearly identical to the Wheeler goal. Not an OT goal,
but given the game, I would say a better one. Check it out on YouTube.

Chris Melsha

Blaine, MN

Wheeler's still has my vote over Broten's, but just by a little bit.
Broten's was a great individual effort of skill and smarts.
Thanks for the YouTube heads up. I watched them both 20 times each.
Sometimes things that happened long ago, like The Beatles, are better and
sometimes they are not.


John,

I was at the Phoenix game when Ovechkin scored his goal. That goal was the
most unbelievable sports moment I've ever witnessed live or on TV. Let me
put it in some perspective -- the 10,000 or so fans that were in attendance
gave Ovechkin a standing ovation for a full minute -- and these were
predominantly Coyotes fans. Nobody believed what they saw. That being said,
the Wheeler goal -- with its significance as the OT game-winner -- was pretty
sweet. With Wheeler, Hanzal and Mueller coming up and the young defensemen
currently in place (Michalek, Ballard), does this organization have a good
chance of turning their losing ways around in the near future?

Chicken parm forever!
Jordan Ellel
Philly faithful living in Phoenix

P.S. "The Luckiest" is one of the most beautiful songs ever written.

The Coyotes need to keep losing and get that first or second pick in the NHL
draft and choose Patrick Kane of Buffalo, N.Y. Even if they fall to
No. 2, they will get a stud. And Kane should be able to play next year. He's
Daniel Briere's size and skilled. Put him on a line with Shane Doan to give
him some room, and the Coyotes will at least be better. They still have a
long way to go, but this is the road to take. Not Roenick, Nolan,
Scatchard, Ricci, and what they were doing going into this season.


John,

Have you had a chance to see the Sabres' rookie winger, Drew Stafford? With
his emergence, the acquisition of Zubrus and the return of Afinogenov,
Connolly and Kotalik, the Sabres are going to be rolling four dangerous
lines every single night. Is there any other team in the league with as much
depth up front?

I've attached a picture of my 3-year-old, Caleb, who is playing "Danny
Briere." According to him, Danny can do anything, including playing goal. By
the way, check out the plastic cup that Caleb placed on the top of the
net … he refuses to play hockey unless there is something on the net to
mimic the water bottle.

Thanks for the column. Go Sabres!
Best,
John
Rochester, New York

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.