Haggerty: Banning fights not the answer for NHL

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Haggerty: Banning fights not the answer for NHL

WINNIPEG Any attempt to clean concussions out of the NHL and the sport of ice hockey is surely an admirable venture.

Two summers ago when NHL tough guys Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak all died of apparent suicides, it became disturbingly easy to link connections between hockey fighting, the chronic brain swelling now being found in medical studies of pro athletes that take too many concussive blows to the head, and potentially dangerous mental illness.

There has been clamoring to outlaw hockey fighting because it was clearly turning NHL players into the ticking human time bombs that have become all-too familiar in the NFL over the past few tragic years.

It was part of the thesis for a Boston Globe column by Chris Gasper last week calling for fighting to be banned in the NHL. It also rekindled the issue in the city of Boston where hockey fighters are celebrated cult heroes and the big, bad style of old time hockey is still respected, revered and fully understood. But a funny thing has happened to the Chicken Little element of the hockey world looking to outlaw hockey fighting as the last two years have unfolded: Things didnt get worse, and instead its starting to look like those three fatal incidents were more coincidental than troubling trend.

Fighting is up over 20 percent in the NHL this season from last year, and both the usage of the Quiet Room and the mandatory 7-10 days out of the lineup instituted by the league after a diagnosed concussion are methods that are working.

Concussions are up across the NHL from 10 years ago, but in a strange way thats a good thing. It means concussions are being more accurately reported and treated with a gravity that perhaps wasnt present among all NHL medical staffs in the he had his bell rung mentality of NHL yesteryear.

The Shawn Thornton incident from a couple of weeks ago might be perhaps the perfect example of the NHL concussion protocol working in the proper way. Thornton was dinged up in a one-sided brawl with 6-foot-8 monster John Scott to the point the Bruins enforcer entered the penalty box asking NHL officials if hed just been in a fight.

That was seconds after scraping himself up off the ice, and was the first clear indicator hed suffered a concussion.

It was the first diagnosed concussion for Thornton during his six years filling the enforcer role for the Black and Gold, and that includes 87 fights since the winger first signed with Boston prior to the 2007-08 campaign. He sat out his 10 days and then returned without any lingering issues or symptoms, and he hasnt experienced any complications afterward as a 35-year-old enforcer playing in a young mans game.

Thornton rightfully gets indignant when anybody uses a single incident of a concussion in a brawl between experienced fighters to ignite the argument that fighting should be eliminated from the NHL.

"I don't like when people try and take advantage of the situation," said Thornton to CSNNE.com more than a week ago while still recovering from his concussion. "It's part of their agenda. There's fighting in hockey. It's in the game. I think it's a necessary part of the game. I don't think it's going anywhere, so there's no point in really even dwelling on it.

I'm a big boy. I know what I'm getting into."

Here are the facts about hockey fights in the NHL: They account for less than 10 percent of all concussions in the NHL and are not even close to the biggest cause of head injuries in hockey. In a study done 10 years ago by the NHL it was found that centers were twice as likely to suffer concussions as defensemen and forwards. By and large, these are not the fighters, the enforcers, the goons.

The centers are the talented, playmakers in the NHL that are skating in the danger zone areas in the middle of the ice, and sport a natural target on their backs given that theyre typically the most skilled players on the ice.

So outlawing hockey fighting is doing next-to-nothing to solve the concussion problem in the NHL, and would instead simply do the opposite it. The banning of hockey fights would be exacerbating the concussion problem. The dangerous faction of NHL players like Matt Cooke and Raffi Torres -- who seem to pop up at least once or twice a season in regrettable plays that lead to other players getting injured -- would act with more frequency and impunity. The lack of accountability by force would also multiply the number of Cooke-type characters in the league, and thats not a good thing.

Suddenly instead of every team employing an NHL enforcer to keep the peace, each team would be forced to employ a certifiable NHL rat, constantly flirting with going over the line and hurting fellow players. Outlawing fighting would have the opposite intended effect, and it could very well turn hockey into something much more like the NFL: a place where predatory players roam free and engineer dangerous hits on unprotected, vulnerable opponents.

Hockey is the only sport where players have a actual weapon in their hands during play. Sticks can damage eyes and snap wrist bones like twigs. Hockey is also the only major pro sport where there is no out of bounds or foul territory if a player is targeted on the ice.

No matter how much pundits would like to say the NHL needs to get rid of fighting and conform to the other big three sports, hockey will always be its own entity because of its nuances.

If any altruistic soul truly wants to rid the NHL of concussions or at least lessen them significantly there are some pretty simple steps to follow.

First, the NHL would need to reduce the size of elbow and shoulder pads -- as well as the hard material used to make them -- that currently make hockey players look like knights from King Arthurs Round Table. The risk of injuring yourself would reduce the reckless abandon used on the ice.

Second, the NHL needs to reinstitute the red line to help slow down the action: higher skating speeds, combined with the size and strength of this generations hockey players contributes greatly to head injuries on plays that used to be routine in old time hockey.

Third, NHL referees need to allow interferenceobstruction away from the puck. Defensemen formerly used this technique to slow down fore-checkers that were looking to pick up a head of steam before they blasted the puck-retrieving defenseman behind the net. Players were allowed to use their bodies to get in the way and slow down attackers prior to the 2004-05 lockout, and hence the NHL game became much faster and more dangerous after that work stoppage.

Of course these changes would probably lead to more shoulder and elbow injuries for NHL players, and they would certainly slow down a brand of hockey thats become fast, exciting and attractive in the eight years since the rules were changed.

The question becomes whats more important: making changes that might improve the safety of NHL players, or leaving things at the status quo. But those that think eliminating hockey fights is the panacea hockey has been searching for in reducing the NHL's concussion problem are taking the very short-sighted view of a massive, complex, all-encompassing issue.

NHL hockey a contact sport that will always have some level of risk and danger associated with it, and thats what the players signed up for when they started playing the game as children.

Bruins hope OT win was sign of things to come offensively

Bruins hope OT win was sign of things to come offensively

BOSTON -- For a team where offense has been a major problem area this season, lighting the lamp four times against the Florida Panthers on Monday night was a welcomed sight for the Bruins indeed.

The Bruins won it in dazzling fashion with a 4-3 overtime win on a David Pastrnak rush to the net after he totally undressed D-man Mike Matheson on his way to the painted area, and then skill took over for him easily beating Roberto Luongo with a skate-off goal.

That was the game-breaker doing his thing and finishing with a pair of goals in victory, and continuing to push a pace that has the 20-year-old right wing on track for more than 40 goals this season.

That would give the Bruins just their fourth 40-goal scorer in the last 25 years of franchise history (Glen Murray in 2002-03, Bill Guerin in 2001-02 and Cam Neely in 1993-94), and mark one of the bigger reasons behind an expected offensive surge that may just be coming for a Black and Gold group currently ranked 23rd in the league in offense.

They just hope that the four strikes vs. Florida is indeed a harbinger of things to come for the rest of the season after serving as just the eighth time in just 26 games this season that they scored more than two goals.

“[There have been] a lot of tight games and low-scoring games, you’re right. It’s good, but as a goalie, I’m not happy when I let in three goals, ever. But it’s great to see that scoring support,” said Tuukka Rask. “When you get four goals, you expect to win, and a lot of times when we get three, I expect to win. It’s great to see [an uptick in scoring].”

So what is there to be optimistic about from a B’s offensive perspective aside from Pastrnak blowing up for a couple more goals to keep pace among the NHL league leaders with Sidney Crosby and Patrick Laine?

Well, the Bruins are starting to see results from crashing to the front of the net, attacking in the offensive zone and finally finishing off plays after serving as one of the best puck possession teams in the league over the first few months.

Just look at how the goals were scored, and how the Bruins are working in closer to the net rather than settling for perimeter plays.

The first goal on Monday night was a result of Tim Schaller crashing down the slot area for a perfectly executed one-timer feed from David Krejci. Similarly David Pastrnak was hanging around in front of the net in the second period when a no-look, spinning Brad Marchand dish from behind the net came his way, and he wasn’t going to miss from that range against Roberto Luongo. Then David Backes parked his big body in front of the Florida net in the third period, and redirected a Ryan Spooner shot up and over Luongo for the score that got the Bruins into overtime.

It’s one of a couple of goals scored by Backes down low recently, and his third goal in the last five games as he heats up with his playmaking center in Krejci. The 32-year-old Backes now has seven goals on the season and is on pace for 26 goals after a bit of a slow start, and the offense is coming for that line as they still search for balance in their two-way hockey play.

“A few more guys are feeling [better] about their games, and know that we’re capable of putting a crooked number up like that. It bodes well moving forward,” said Backes. “But you can’t think that we’re going to relax after the effort that we put in. We’ve got to skill to those dirty areas and still get those second and third chances, and not take anything off during those opportunities. It’s got to go to the back of the net.

“With the way Tuukka has played, and our defense has been stingy and our penalty kill has been on, four goals should be a win for our team. It hasn’t always been easy for us this year. It’s been a process, but I think you’re starting to see the things that you need to see in order for us to score goals. We’re going to the front of the net and getting extended offensive zone time, and then you find a few guys like Pasta in the slot. That’s a good recipe for us.”

Then there’s Ryan Spooner, who enjoyed his best game of the season on Monday night and set up the B’s third goal of the game with his speed and creativity. It was noticeable watching Spooner play with his unbridled skating speed and creative playmaking, and it made a discernible difference in Boston’s overall offensive attack against Florida. It’s something that Claude Julien is hoping to see more of moving forward from Spooner after recent trade rumors really seemed to spark the 23-year-old center, and also knocked some of the inconsistency from a player that’s extremely dangerous offensively when he’s “on.”

“It’s obvious that if Ryan wants to give us those kinds of games, then we have lots of time for him. When he doesn’t we just can’t afford to give him that kind of ice time,” said Julien. “There are games where he hasn’t been as involved, and it’s obvious and apparent to everybody that when he’s not getting involved then he’s not helping our team. When he is playing the way he did yesterday, we can certainly use that player more than not. We’d love to see him get consistent with those kinds of games.”

So while it’s clear the Bruins aren’t completely out of the woods offensively and there are still players like Patrice Bergeron sitting below their usual offensive numbers, it’s also been a little mystifying to watch Boston struggle so much offensively given their talent level.

The Black and Gold fully realized that potential in taking a tough divisional game from Florida on Monday night, and they hope it’s something to build on as the schedule doesn’t let up at all in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, Dec. 6: The Bruins-Panthers connection

Tuesday, Dec. 6: The Bruins-Panthers connection

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while Dave Dombrowski is collecting stars and talent over at Fenway Park. I dig it.

*Interesting piece about switching teams in the NHL and leaving behind old allegiances when the job calls for it.

*FOH (Friend of Haggs) Harvey Fialkov looks at the connections between the Bruins and the Florida Panthers, and more specifically with the Panthers and the Boston-area.

*A rumor round-up across the NHL including the humorous nugget that the Bruins are looking to move Jimmy Hayes. Yes, they are looking to move Hayes. They are begging some other NHL team to take on the player and the contract for somebody that has one point since last February. It’s not happening.

*Escrow is at the heart of the next negotiation between the NHL and the NHLPA, and I really thought it was going to be years before I’d have to even think about the CBA again.

*Tough break for the Florida Panthers losing Keith Yandle for a long period of time after he was injured last night vs. the Bruins. FOH (Friend of Haggs) Mike Halford has the story at Pro Hockey Talk.

*Wild coach Bruce Boudreau talks his “bucket list”, which includes a lot of movies and even a stint as a movie reviewer for the Manchester Union Leader back in the day.

*Sounds like Pat Maroon might want to sit out the next few plays after calling hockey a “man’s game” among other things.

*For something completely different: Yup, I’m pretty okay with the Red Sox blowing up the prospect cupboard for Chris Sale.