Commentary

Fighting 'not a debate within the game'

Updated: March 9, 2009, 9:41 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

NAPLES, Fla. -- Want to know why the debate over fighting in the National Hockey League will never be resolved?

It's because, for the most part, people in the NHL don't see that there's a debate about fighting at all. Fighting is part of the game. Has been since the days when they used frozen horse dung and curved tree branches. Move along, people. Nothing to look at here.

"To me, it's not a debate within the game," Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke said Monday during the first day of the annual GMs meetings here. "It's a debate that's raging around [the game]."

Does that mean there won't be significant discussion about the role of fighting in the NHL here the next couple of days? No. There will be. The discussion began Monday as the GMs broke into committee groups to discuss a variety of issues and will continue Tuesday afternoon when the GMs meet as a whole.

But the discussion about fighting is as much about the optics of the game -- what do we tell our fans and the media about how we view fighting -- as it is about fighting itself.

"Your point is right on because when you talk to the coaches and the managers and the players, they're OK with it," Nashville GM David Poile told ESPN.com on Monday.

Poile notes that, over the years, the NHL has reacted to elements of fighting within the game, eliminating the bench-clearing brawls that were so much of the NHL's trademark in the 1970s. The league introduced stiff penalties to stop two-on-one fights. It introduced the instigator rule to curb players' goading others into fights. It introduced sanctions to prevent fights late in games that served as calling cards or message fights.

"We have paid close attention to it," Poile said.

It is a hot-button topic at these meetings not because there is any movement from within the league to dramatically alter the place of fighting in the game but rather as a result of external pressures stemming from external events.

In light of recent events, most notably the death of minor pro hockey player Don Sanderson, who went into a coma after falling during a fight and died three weeks later, the league once again is being asked to account for its stand on fighting.

Burke said he did not address the issue of fighting for several weeks after Sanderson's death, "out of respect for the family." After that, Burke was interviewed by the Canadian newsmagazine TV show "The Fifth Estate" about fighting in hockey.

"First of all, it attracts a lot of media coverage, non-sports media, guys that don't care about hockey show up with their camera when an event of that size happens," Burke said. "I mean, 'The Fifth Estate' showed up. I said to the guy who did the interview, 'Where were you a year ago? You're not worried about player safety; you're taking advantage of this horrible tragedy to focus on our sport, which you don't really care about anyway.'

"But you have to look at it. You have to look at the mechanics of fighting. Is there a way -- this will sound really silly -- is there a way to make it safer," Burke added. "Guys like me that believe fighting has an integral place in our game, what's the best way to do it in a way that senseless or needless injuries can be averted. So, we have to look at that, and that's what we're going to do."

This is where there is a great disconnect between the external expectation and what will really be accomplished here in Naples.

The public, in many ways through the media coverage of fighting, expects there to be great and lengthy debate about whether fighting will go the way of the dodo bird. Yet, most of the discussion here will be very micro -- how do you manage what everyone from players to managers concedes is going to remain a very viable, visible part of the game?

NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly, who addressed the GMs for an hour Monday morning, said the players support fighting in the game. The skilled players like it because they believe having someone in their lineup capable of handling himself in a fight provides a measure of security for them. Enforcers like it, naturally, because it provides them with a job.

"The players' view is fighting actually does play an important role in the sport," Kelly said. "Players believe that fighting, to a large degree, does cut down on some of the violence in the sport, it does cut down on the stick work and other play. It protects the star players, the smaller players."

Phoenix Coyotes GM Don Maloney is as thoughtful and well-spoken as it gets among the GMs. He seemed genuinely perplexed when asked what he thought needed to be done about fighting.

"I don't know. I'm not sure," Maloney said. "It's part of the fabric of the game, the culture of the game."

One thing Maloney is certain of is, his young Coyotes team definitely will have someone in the lineup who can scrap. "It's about a comfort level for the younger players," Maloney said. "Whether that's archaic thinking … but I don't think it is."

People will point to the defending Stanley Cup champion squad in Detroit, which does not boast a traditional fighter in the form of a Georges Laraque or Chris Neil. But the Wings are also one of the oldest, most experienced teams in the NHL.

Most GMs believe in fighting on a number of different levels and would be loath to ice a team that did not have some players capable of dropping -- and willing to drop -- their gloves should the moment call for it.

"It is fast and furious out there. It is a contact sport. There is no stepping out of bounds and all the rest of it, so there are going to be people getting hurt," Ottawa GM Bryan Murray said. "We just want to do the best we can to control the environment a little bit more."

That said, by the end of these meetings, look for the GMs to consider a couple of minor tweaks to how fights unfold. One will be forcing players to keep their helmets on during fights to prevent the possibility of head injuries from a fall during a scrap.

"We've got a whole bunch of injuries from guys that wear helmets in fights, broken fingers, cut fingers, broken hands," Burke said. "Because the consequences of the head injury, the potential for a tragedy or a serious injury; I mean, we can fix a broken hand, we can't necessarily fix a brain injury. So, to me, we have to look at that. We have to look at making sure players keep the lids on."

Whether the GMs will suggest players be penalized for taking off their helmets or whether they'll merely suggest the linesmen jump in and break up a fight as soon as one of the combatants' helmets comes off remains unknown.

The other element many GMs seem to agree on is that the staged fight, one in which two heavyweights agree to fight independent of whatever is happening in the game, should be abolished. The problem, of course, is in determining just what constitutes such a fight.

"Staged fighting. I see that phrase a lot," Burke said. "You'll see two guys line up off the faceoff and they're yapping, and then they fight and everyone says, 'Oh, it's a staged fight.' When I was playing in the American League, I went up to a guy in a game who speared me two years before that when I was playing university hockey.

"So, anyone else upstairs would say it's a staged fight. Well, it wasn't a staged fight. I was going to get this guy, and I was going to get him the first time I was on the ice with him. And after the incident, he yelled at me, 'What was that all about?' And I told him, I said, 'You got me two years ago, and I didn't get a chance to get you for two years.' It's not always a staged fight."

Did he win the fight?

"Yeah, I did win the fight," Burke said. "Dave Lumley. Go ask him. He speared me in the back of the leg."

Regardless of just what ends up being passed along to the competition committee and what might ultimately make its way to the NHL's board of governors in terms of recommended rule changes, whatever is discussed here will do little to resolve the debate over the place of fighting in the game.

Not that it's likely to bother anyone who lives within the NHL's borders.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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