More fights this season? Is this a good or bad thing?
Editor's note: In our "Friday Faceoff," ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: Fighting is up 56 percent so far this season. What's at the root of this? Is it good or bad for the league's ability to sell itself?
Scott: So, I note that hockey pundits around the world (OK, maybe just around the corner) are all bemoaning the fact that every team is turning thuggish in the wake of the "fighting" Ducks' Stanley Cup win last season. Fighting stats are up significantly from 2006-07, but still way down from before the lockout. I think this is all a red herring deflecting attention away from the real issue, which is what should be done to improve the meals in press rooms across the NHL. Thoughts from the center of the hockey universe?
Damien: Don't know about the herring reference being a halibut man myself. But a 56 percent increase in fighting majors, and a 78 percent increase in games that have more than one fight, seems to be an issue that deserves even the attention of an important hockey mind like yours.
Scott: I throw these stats in the hopes that my dogged research will impress you and our readers (although entire credit must be given to the NHL's communications staff, which provided them to me). So, yes, fighting majors are up through the first 130 games of the season, but given the decline in fighting from before the lockout (down almost 50 percent), there was bound to be some bounce back. I guess it deserves our attention, and presumably the league's, assuming you think fighting's a bad thing. I am not a proponent of the fight as a valuable hockey tool, but I also don't mind that it's part of the NHL landscape. Personally, I think anyone who believes the Ducks won a Stanley Cup because they could fight didn't spend much time watching the playoffs. Stats through the first 130 games:
2007-08: 158 fighting majors
2006-07: 103 fighting majors
2003-04: 190 fighting majors
Damien: Yeah, I'll run your theory about the Ducks not scrapping their way to the Cup past Kim Johnsson of the Wild as soon as he wakes up from his Brad May-induced snooze. It's not that fighting's a bad thing; used to do it all the time with my three brothers growing up. It's just a waste of time, and I've never bought this theory that somehow it's a necessary release for hockey players and a way to keep the sticks down, etc. If the NHL ever just came out and said, "Look, we know it's stupid, but we keep it for entertainment purposes," well, at least that would be honest.
Scott: But do you really think the entertainment value is that high across the NHL? I think if you outlawed fighting, or gave a game suspension to every player who dropped the gloves (which might not be a bad thing) and fighting fell off the map, I bet the number of new fans that come as a result would offset the number of fans who would leave because they missed watching two grown men maul each other on ice. Just curious, how'd you make out scrapping with your brothers? As for Kim Johnsson, agreed; although, technically, it wasn't really a fight but rather an ambush.
Damien: I think the "entertainment value" of fighting is wildly overrated. The most popular NHL games, and the ones that draw the biggest ratings, are in the playoffs and there is little to no fighting. The entertainment value has to be in the games, and that's where the NHL often falls short.
Scott: Agreed. So, is it the league that needs to more fully punish fighters to eliminate it, or is it about re-educating GMs who want to waste $1 million or more of cap space to have a guy on the bench that might, in theory, deter some other thug from bruising their star player? Remember all the hullabaloo about the Pittsburgh Penguins needing toughness and giving up a decent prospect to bring in Georges Laraque, who averaged about five minutes a night and was lost every second he was on the ice? Now, I hear GMs are calling John Ferguson to try and pry the indispensable Wade Belak away from the Leafs. Belak, I might add, has seven goals in 401 NHL games.
Damien: For starters, I think we're seeing a copycat effect here. The Ducks finished way ahead in fighting majors a season ago and won the Cup. This season, five Western Conference teams have more scrapping majors. It's not hard to see what's going on. But I don't necessarily believe there's a need to "punish" players. Five minutes and a game misconduct would suffice. Then, if players and teams really believed it was an indispensable component of their games, they could still include it. Funny, but while the Ducks dropped 'em so many times last season, nobody seems to note Detroit won multiple Cups without an enforcer and the Lightning and Hurricanes won championships without employing a well-known goon. It's just not that important, but the Ducks, by winning it all, have made it seem that important again.
Scott: For me, if guys like Donald Brashear and Laraque want to tangle, go ahead. I'll take the opportunity to seek out another ice cream bar. But what has to be disturbing is, several times this season, we've seen legitimate players (notice I make a distinction) deciding fighting is a valuable part of their services to their team and then they end up on the shelf. The Blues had to do without Eric Brewer, and now the Oilers are without Sheldon Souray after he scrapped with Byron Ritchie. Neither of those teams is known as being "bruising." Maybe those are the teams that are inquiring after Mr. Belak.
Damien: Good point (first of the year for you, I believe, so congrats). In fact, there was Vincent Lecavalier fighting Wednesday night with Shaone Morrisonn of the Caps after Morrisonn delivered what Lecavalier deemed was an illegal hit. It's a fair point, but that's part of the game, and more an officiating issue than anything. I've never been able to understand why a running back can go through the line, get drilled by the middle linebacker, pick up his mouthpiece and a couple of his teeth, and head back to the huddle without needing to fight. I understand it's not part of the tradition of the game, but what makes hockey so different from a variety of high-contact sports that dropping the gloves is such a critical outlet?
Scott: If there's anything more strange than two guys getting into a fight because someone else has thrown a perfectly legal hit, it's the notion that if you start a fight, the guys on the bench will play harder. I watched Jon Sim, a nice enough fellow, practically beg Mark Bell to fight him one night last season when Bell's Sharks were crushing Sim's Atlanta Thrashers. Bell reluctantly engaged Sim and promptly broke his orbital bone. Ouch. But in the end, is it too much to ask the NHL to save the fighters from themselves since they obviously can't do it themselves?
Damien: See, I believe the NHL wants fighting. I think it likes the edgy, outlaw feel it gives the league, and sees it as a distinctive touch, something that makes the NHL look different than other pro sports leagues. But while Canadians believe that this is what America wants in order to be attracted to the game, there's no evidence of that. All the bench-clearing brawls in the world in the 1960s and 1970s didn't make the U.S. or its television networks crazy about hockey, and I don't think there's any evidence to suggest keeping it as part of the NHL package now will help that effort either. We know the NHL can't sell itself in the U.S. with fighting; what we don't know is how it would do if there was no fighting.
Scott: Do you think the league really wants the fighting or is it paralyzed by just how to go about eradicating it? It seems a simple thing -- penalize the fighting heavily and it goes away except for those rare and, I think, perfectly acceptable moments when there is a spontaneous dropping of the gloves. I don't even think it's the fear-of-losing cachet. How can you lose what you don't have?
Damien: No, I think they want it. Sadly, it's what makes the highlight reels, and the pro-fighting crowd is very loud, much louder than the vast majority of hockey fans and non-hockey fans who look at it as a complete waste of time. The NHL is terrified of alienating what it would describe as its core audience, and therefore unwilling to take out an element of the game that it believes some portion of the audience desperately craves.
Scott: I guess maybe the real issue is whether taking it out of the game actually improves the NHL's ability to market itself. Would it be more popular, especially in the U.S., without fighting? I think the effect would be negligible. I'm just not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing.
Damien: Agreed. And the reality is fighting in hockey probably isn't going anywhere. There's a big group of people that passionately believes in this stuff, and GM Brian Burke and the Ducks have created a new sense that ultimate success using these tactics is possible. Just like the Flyers did in the 1970s.
Scott: Maybe, but I still don't think you can ever compare that era with this. Even compared to just before the lockout, fighting is less a part of the norm, and when a skill team like Ottawa or Carolina wins a championship next spring, it will become even less of a factor. We can only hope.
Damien: Yeah, how 'bout them Hurricanes, huh? Unfortunately, there are many who believe the East isn't nearly as good as the West. Maybe a topic for next week? Later, pal.
Scott: Indeed. Until then.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."
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