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Empty benches equal total mayhem

1/19/2004

Fighting in general remains a part of hockey, but the days of the bench-clearing brawl were already pretty much over by the time I arrived in the NHL as a 20-year-old Hartford Whalers rookie during the 1984-85 season.

It used to be that two guys would drop the gloves and everyone else on the ice would pair off. Those other players would often end up throwing punches, too, and if someone on the bench saw a teammate getting beaten he would often jump off the bench and come to the rescue.

The decline of fights like that didn't mean everyone got a free pass -- my first NHL shift, against Boston, ended with everyone on the ice involved in a fight -- but the days of the true bench-clearer had come and gone.

Junior hockey was a different story, though. I was 14 when I played my first game in junior and wound up in the middle of a bench-clearing brawl. Everyone was pairing off and I was grabbed by an older guy. As I stood there looking around to see what was happening he broke my nose. I learned my first lesson about fighting that day: always keep your eye on the guy how has a hold on you.

It was not uncommon to have two or three fights a year like that.

One of the scariest brawls I was ever involved in also happened in junior. Former Flyers, Nordiques and Islanders goalie Ron Hextall was the netminder for our team, and before the second period started he instigated a fight in retaliation for something that took place earlier in the game.

I was the last guy on the ice, and when I arrived on the scene it was total mayhem. Former NHL tough guys Stu Grimson and Lyndon Byers were also part of that fight, and it was a little frightening to be out there with such players because they got pretty busy in situations like that.

Heading onto the ice during a brawl is a huge adrenaline rush at first; everyone is scrambling around, not really knowing where they're headed but just trying to get out there and grab someone. The scary part is that you never know who you'll be paired up with. For a smaller guy like me who was not a very good fighter the idea was to find a guy my size before someone else got to him so I could at least have a chance. And I was always a popular opponent in those brawls precisely because I couldn't fight.

There are no rules or etiquette when it came to bench-clearers. Anything could happen. My strategy was to keep my back to the boards and my head on a swivel so I could see who or what was coming at me. I wasn't looking for a fight, but I was looking to protect myself and my teammates.

The last brawl I took part in happened during pregame warmups before a minor-league game in Binghamton, N.Y., just before I got called up to the Whalers. We were playing the Nova Scotia Oilers, and in the previous game against them one of our defensemen, longtime NHLer Ulf Samuelsson, had gotten his stick into the face of an Oilers player.

Nova Scotia had legendary minor-league fighter Archie Henderson on the roster at the time, and before that next game even started the Oilers came after Samuelsson. Things got ugly in a hurry. No one could break it up, the coaches fought off the ice and police dogs were eventually brought onto the ice to restore order. Each team started the game with about nine skaters apiece.

I entered the NHL shortly thereafter, and even though the bench-clearing brawl was mostly a thing of the past there was still some accountability. I knew I would be repaid in kind if I laid a stick on someone, and everyone knew that if you did it enough there was going to be a fight.

That was an effective deterrent for a lot of players, believe me. But the instigator rule has taken much of that accountability away with its additional minor penalty and 10-minute misconduct penalty for the guy who starts a fight.

So while bench-clearing brawls are no longer a worry, fighting as a whole can still be an effective tool in the NHL -- if it is used and regulated properly.

Ray Ferraro is a hockey analyst for ESPN. He retired from an 18-year NHL career after the 2001-02 season.