There are those in the media who have theorized the amount of fighting in NHL games is a big factor in the game's perceived weakness in the U.S. market.
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Perhaps they are right.
Except they have the rationale wrong. It is not that there is too much fighting in the game, it is that there is not enough.
Sure, there are people who think fighting in hockey is awful. But with very few exceptions, those are people who would not watch hockey in any case. The average fan enjoys a good scrap now and then, and this seems even truer for the much-desired casual fan.
Every time a highlight of a hockey fight comes on in a bar, even in Southern California, the bar stops and watches. And not a negative word is ever spoken. Instead, people's eyes light up, patrons and employees stop and watch, and even the most timid servers tend to say "good fight!"
No, it is not the high amount of fighting that hurts hockey in the United States. On the other hand, many sports fans talk wistfully about the bygone days when it was more common to see two guys drop the gloves and settle the score.
Although the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins received headlines for their style of play in the 1970s, fighting actually peaked in the 1980s. With high scoring games accompanied by some legendary fights, many fans look back at that decade as a high point in NHL history.
Since then, fighting has slowly declined to the point where no NHL team is averaging as much as one fighting major per game this season. There has been much said about the Katella Street Bullies -- make that the Anaheim Ducks -- but even their totals are relatively modest compared to bygone years.
Anaheim had a league-high 71 fighting majors in 82 regular season games, and fan favorite George Parros led the league with 18 bouts. Yet as recently as 2001-02, Florida led the league with 117 fighting majors, or roughly 1.4 per game. The Chicago Blackhawks routinely piled up more than 90 scraps per season through the first half of the 1990s.
And these numbers came at a time when people already talked about fighting being down in the league.
Nobody is advocating the return of bench-clearing brawls to hockey. And nobody is advocating staged fights -- that has never been a part of hockey and never will become a part of the game.
However, a good fight or two adds a lot to the game. One of the most popular bouts of recent seasons came during the first round of last year's playoffs when Anaheim's Francois Beauchemin tangled with Calgary's Jarome Iginla. Calgary led the series 3-2 when they dropped the gloves early in game six. Iginla has a reputation as one of the league's toughest players, yet Beauchemin scored a decisive decision.
The rest of the game, the normally-sedate Pond crowd resembled the old Chicago Stadium. With the crowd and team fired up, the Ducks won the game and eventually took the series in seven games.
When asked by CBC about the difference in the series, Anaheim star Teemu Selanne said it was Beauchemin's fight that turned the series around. Keep in mind, this is coming from a player who is known for anything but his pugilistic skills -- yet he credited the fight as being the difference in the series.
Petr Sykora gave a similar assessment on Home Ice XM 204 earlier this year when he said the new NHL was good, but he really missed the fights. Again, a non-fighter comments how he misses the momentum from a good scrap.
The best way to allow that momentum to return is to eliminate the instigator penalty. In theory, the rule made sense to many people at the time it was introduced. It would seem to work fine for a situation when a player like Donald Brashear jumps a player like Sidney Crosby -- a clear case of an enforcer fighting someone who does not want to fight in an attempt to get the skilled player off the ice for five minutes.
It is not enforced that way, however. Instigator penalties often go to a player who drops the gloves a half second earlier when two players are set to go -- something that seems ridiculous. Even more important, it eliminates the enforcer's ability to settle a score by dropping the gloves. There is a reason Wayne Gretzky rarely got hit -- he had Dave Semenko, and later Marty McSorley, to step to his defense.
Look at many of the recent incidents in the NHL -- Chris Simon hitting Ryan Hollweg with his stick being the most notable. In the old days, it would have been natural for Simon to get up and drop the gloves, settling the score in a fair way. In this case, the dazed Simon -- who is said to be suffering from concussion-like symptoms two weeks after being checked from behind by Hollweg seconds before the incident -- instead chose to give Hollweg a slash/cross-check to the face.
Nobody is saying what Simon did was right. Yet at the same time, players are more cautious about dropping the gloves in a case like that, and sometimes, the frustration manifests itself in the wrong way. Would the lack of an instigator penalty have changed the incident? It is doubtful even Simon could answer that question, yet one has to wonder.
The rule can be maddening -- and unjust -- in other cases as well. In a late season game between Chicago and Anaheim, Chicago's Tuomo Ruutu took a run at Anaheim's Andy McDonald, following through with a high-stick to McDonald's face. Teammate Chris Kunitz did the right thing -- he came to McDonald's defense, dropping the gloves in an attempt to go with the more-penalized Ruutu.
The ever-irritating Ruutu failed to fight back, however, instead choosing to ragdoll. In other words, he let his body go limp and played the role of the innocent victim. The officials fell for it -- Kunitz received two for instigating, five for fighting, a 10-minute misconduct and a game misconduct.
The game actually took an interesting turn from this point, as the Ducks had revenge on their minds for the third period. Several scrums and a couple of fights ensued, and the fans loved every minute of what they saw.
The movement to scrap the instigator rule continues to gain momentum within the hockey world -- both with fighters and non-fighters. Lose the instigator rule, let the gloves come off, and allow scores to be settled.
The players, fans, and hockey media all seem to agree. Hopefully the competition committee will be on board as well.
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