NHL Notes: Players continue to support fighting

NHL Notes: Players continue to support fighting
October 7, 2013, 12:45 pm
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The people whose opinions matter most about on-ice issues, the players, aren’t budging.

The subject, of course, is the much ballyhooed allowance of fighting within the NHL. It’s been a hot-button topic for years now with post-concussion syndrome unfolding into a very scary reality for select former NHL players, underscored by the highly-publicized lawsuit from the Boogaard family after the late Derek Boogaard -- an established enforcer -- fell into a downward spiral of painkillers and head injuries.

The subject kicked up again this past week when an opening-night tilt between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs grew ugly. It was the second fight of the night between noted pugilists Colton Orr and George Parros, and when it was over what followed was a Hockey Night in Canada dissertation on why hockey fighting should be outlawed.

The reason? Parros stumbled during their scrap and slammed into the ice face-first with a sickening thud while his hands were tied up and unable to brake his fall.

Color analyst Glenn Healy immediately chimed in with his wish they get rid of fighting in hockey while punctuating his thoughts by noting that a fighter could die on the ice.

Former Bruins forward and fighter P.J. Stock attempted to speak for the majority of the hockey world that favors keeping fighting in the NHL when things were tossed back into the HNIC studio. Stock correctly pointed out that the players understand the true importance of fighting, and they are the biggest champions for that particular area of the game with good reason.

“It’s people in the game, players in the game, that understand its value,” said Stock during Hockey Night in Canada’s ‘Inside the Game’ segment. “There are way more concussions from hitting and checking than anything else. Does that mean we’re going to eliminate body checking from hockey?

“I played college hockey where there’s no fighting, and everybody is a tough guy. Everybody slashes and everybody runs around. I don’t know how you could outlaw it from the game. It would just be great if people didn’t jump to Twitter every time something happens, and then try to tear [fighting in hockey] down.”

Without the presence of an Orr, or a Parros, or a Shawn Thornton, on the opposing bench, there would be a glut of NHL players styling themselves after Tim “Dr. Hook” McCracken. Hockey hatchet men and cheap shot artists like Matt Cooke, Raffi Torres and Pat Kaleta have been forced to change their ways given the watchful eye of the Department of Public Safety. But the threat of an in-game beat down always looms when the cheap-shot artists start breaking bad. That's part of what keeps the game in check.

How about the cold, hard facts of hockey fighting?

About eight percent of the NHL’s concussions are suffered as a result of hockey fighting, and the majority of them end without incident or major injury. The bouts that go wrong -- like what happened to Parros -- are the exception rather than the rule.

Taking the ax to hockey fighting, and by proxy the enforcers that engage in them, would make the NHL a much more dangerous place with nowhere to hide on the ice. The skill players that would become targets seem to understand it best.

“I just think guys would start to take liberties if there wasn’t fighting. A lot of times it keeps everything in check,” said Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise. “You can’t just run around and know you’ll be protected by the rules and protected by the officials. A lot of times you need to have guys on the team that are out there to end that kind of stuff.”

The discussion during Hockey Night in Canada prompted CBC sideline reporter and respected hockey voice Elliotte Friedman to chide Stock that “the line in the NHL is moving” away from fighting in the NHL.

“Five years ago we never thought we’d see hybrid icing, but the line moved after we saw the injuries,” said Friedman. “I do think fighting has a place, and I do worry about the game without it. I just don’t think people in the hockey industry have as much of a stomach for it [anymore].”

The intimation was clear: Eventually hockey fights will be outlawed.

Well, if that’s the case somebody should tell the players.

“The Parros thing was just a freak accident. There’s no punch that’s going to be as hard as your chin slamming on the ice,” said Milan Lucic. “I was watching the game. It just sucks because during the second intermission Elliotte Friedman is talking about [banning fighting]. There were three really good hockey games [opening night] with a lot of offense, and it sucks that [hockey fighting] is the main topic that comes out of all of that.

“You would see a lot more stick-work and you’d see a lot more dirty plays just because there is no fear of having to fight. It’s just like in life: If somebody makes you mad and you punch them in the head, you know you’re going to end up in cuffs.

“It’s in the back of a player’s head that if they go and spear a guy that ‘Hey, maybe somebody is going to come after me.’ It’s important that you let the players police themselves in that way. It’s a respected part of the game, and I hope it doesn’t get to the point where it’s taken out. There will be a lot more cheap shots going out there.”

The NHLPA has consistently supported fighting in hockey at almost unanimous levels, and there have been no signs the appetite is there for the league to expunge it from the game, either. Beyond the need for hockey fighting to keep players honest, there’s also the simple entertainment value of a hockey fight that players and fans alike agree is still overwhelmingly there.

Call it a Roman Coliseum-style gladiator fascination, but the human tendency to stop in one’s tracks and watch a hockey fight is undeniable. That is something that MLB, the NFL and the NBA don’t have, and won’t ever have given that it was never a longstanding part of those games. NHL players now know the dangers every time they suit up for a game or drop the gloves in a fight, and it’s a risk they’re still willing to accept.  

All that being said, the evolution to fighting in hockey has already changed dramatically over the last 20 years, and veteran players feel like that has been for the best. The “line” Friedman referred to has already moved.

Line brawls are rare these days, as are the late-game message-sending hits and fights that have been legislated out of hockey through a system of instigator penalties, suspensions and fines. Players are whacked with 10-game suspensions if they leave the bench during a brawl as both Paul Bissonnette and David Clarkson were reminded during the preseason. (BizNasty had his suspension reduced due to a lack of video evidence.)

The old days of the Boston-Montreal rivalry with fights spilling down the runway into the locker rooms are as dated as the Slap Shot scenes where the Hanson Brothers beat their opponents into a bloody stupor.

“It was a scary incident with [Parros], and you hate to see that. But I’ve grown up with fighting in hockey," Jarome Iginla said. "I played junior, and that was part of it. I still think it keeps people more accountable. I think you’d see more stick-work [without fighting]. I think [the league] has scaled it back, and there isn’t much as there use to be. There used to be a lot more premeditated fights from much bigger guys. Teams have some [fighters] on their teams, but it seemed like every team used to have two heavyweight guys, at least a couple middleweights and even a light heavy [weight]. That’s just the way it was. It’s evolved to where it’s a little bit less. There are some where [enforcing] is still their job, but almost every one of them can also play the game.

“In my first six or seven years if you were losing late in the game it would turn into a [gong show]. That’s just the way it went. Now you get the instigator in the last 10 minutes and misconducts and the coach will get fined. We were rebuilding [in Calgary] and those would happen a lot. I don’t see that as much anymore. They’ve put rules into effect that have really curbed that part of it.”

Clearly the NHL is trying to control the pro wrestling-style, orchestrated fights by creating penalties for players that remove their helmets, and whispers continue to swirl in hockey circles that referees are going to start breaking up fights as soon as either player’s helmet pops off. Sounds like the refs should be getting hazard pay for the amount of stray punches they’ll catch on the chin while stepping in mid-fight, so we’ll believe that is becoming the norm when we actually see it.

But the knee-jerk reactionaries in the media railing against fighting -- and a minority of NHL GMs pushing for a stop to fighting in the NHL board room -- should be careful what they ask for.

No amount of rules or mandatory equipment can protect a player like Parros when they lose their balance, and fall to the ice without an ability to brace for impact.

The eye injuries from high sticks and the broken wrists and ankles from two-handed slashes would rise in frequency without the hint of fighter enforcement, and elbows targeted to the heads of a team’s superstar player would be thrown much more freely and easily.

Noted hockey voices like Ken Campbell, Kevin Paul Dupont and Larry Brooks are pining for an end to fighting, but  it sounds like this would be the NHL’s textbook case of “be careful what you wish for.”

“It sucks. It’s never fun to see a guy’s face hit the ice like that. But I’ve seen guys do it killing penalties and tripping over feet. I played with a guy named Quinton Lang that lost his six front teeth trying to jump over a defenseman to get to the net,” said Shawn Thornton. “You know how I feel about people with agendas. They take every opportunity to [expletive] expel a great part of the game.

“It’s not the first time we’ve seen this. I’m just assuming like every other time that this will blow over eventually.”

And the league should let it.

You don’t run away from the things that make you different, unique, popular and intensely loved, NHL. You run toward them. 
Count Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock as a big fan of the big NHL realignment that has placed the Wings smack dab into the middle of a division with their Original Six brethren in Boston, Montreal and Toronto.

While being a part of the eight team Atlantic Division makes it mathematically more difficult to qualify for the playoffs rather than if they’d been able to stay in one of the seven-team Western Conference divisions, the travel is something that will make life easier for the Winged Wheels. 

“I like everything about [the realignment], but I understand that it’s a little harder to get into the playoffs based on math. But for us, travel-wise, the pre-scouts are great. I was watching a game at 7 p.m. rather than 10 p.m., so you’re actually awake,” said Babcock. “We flew into [Boston] and it took no time to get there rather than flying across the country all the time. To me that’s a real positive thing. We’ll miss the Chicago matchup, but it’s a lot of fun for the veteran players and the coaching staff. You can do all the video scouting that you want, but until you see your team head-to-head against the other team it’s hard to know what you need to do [as a coach] to help your team win.
Jaromir Jagr made news on his first day of training camp with the New Jersey Devils by shutting things down just 10 minutes in his first practice. The 41-year-old pulled out of the camp session with a nagging lower body issue, but amazingly the future Hall of Famer was recovered and ready to go just in time when the regular season opened. Clearly the Czech Republic legend has already made his name and reputation with his dominance over the last 20 years in the NHL, but he made it clear that he doesn’t care about legacies or reputation these days.

It’s all about the love of hockey, and the love of still having the puck on his stick with a chance to make some offensive love.

“I don’t care about reputation. I play because I love the game,” said Jagr. “I know people say, ‘Finish on top.’ I don’t agree with that. I’m different. I never played the game because I wanted to be one of the greats. I play because I love this game. Even though I’m not what I used to be, I still love the game. I have the same love I had before.

“People get old. They still love their lives, but they cannot do what they used to do. Are you going to kill yourself? That’s me. I’m going to fight to the end. There are probably a lot of people who don’t agree with me, but I don’t really care. Why should I stop doing something that I love? Because I’m going to hurt my name? So what? Are they going to criticize me that I can’t play anymore . . . that I’m awful? Who cares? As long as I’m giving my best and somebody appreciates my work, I’m happy with that. I’m kind of different that way. You learn to put your ego aside.”

While Jagr proved his word about no longer being an elite scorer during last year’s Bruins playoff run, there was no doubting the aura of greatness around the 41-year-old living hockey legend every time he decided to speak his mind last season in Boston. Some of his on-ice antics didn’t really jive with the Bruins way of doing things, but full credit to the Jagr for being a complete original.
Anybody worried about Brian Burke censoring his usually candid, verbose self in his new position of power with the Calgary Flames, you can rest easy.

The former Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs GM is now President of Hockey Operations with the Flames in a role similar to Cam Neely with the Boston Bruins so he is now where the buck stops for a Canadian franchise that’s been stuck in neutral for nearly a decade. It would be zero fun if Burke was on his best behavior while getting the lay of the land out in Calgary, so it was heartening to see him jump ugly all over one of the organization’s top Swiss prospects, Sven Baertschi, last week.

Baertschi was the 13th pick overall in the 2011 NHL draft and made the Flames out of camp based on his skill and offensive potential. But word out of Calgary is the European player has been slow to embrace the defensive teachings of Calgary coach Bob Hartley and his staff. Clearly that didn’t sit well with Burke.

“All I’ve seen so far are flashes of brilliance . . . (which) are fine if you’re working in a university, but they’re not much good to people in an NHL building. There are three zones on the ice surface in this league,” said Burke, while gaining verbal steam. “I don’t see that he’s learned to compete in two of them. He’s got to learn there’s a clock in this league, and there are so many minutes in a game and you have to compete through all of them.

“I see this as a guy right now who is focusing on one area — and, even then, sporadically. So I don’t know what we have. I’m not ready to quit on the young kid. I’m not ready to throw him under the bus and rip him. But I think you can tell from my comments that I see big holes and a lack of commitment that’s not going to get him anywhere in my books.”

If that isn’t ripping Baertschi, then I’d hate to see when Burke really puts a little feeling into it. But perhaps it all worked. The 21-year-old Baertschi picked up his first point of the season in Calgary’s win over the Blue Jackets last weekend.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: This week's quote goes to St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock for this little dig at Haagen Daaz enthusiast Bruce Boudreau after his between-the-benches showdown with combustible Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy last week. Roy nearly took down the glass partition between the two benches onto Boudreau when he pushed at it while arguing with the Anaheim Ducks bench.

"Bruce (Boudreau), he could have had a new middle name: Pancake," Hitchcock said. "He could have got squished. That (partition) goes any further and Bruce has got the best weight-loss program going."
* With Daniel Alfredsson fleeing Ottawa for his new Detroit home, Shane Doan is the longest-tenured captain on an NHL team with his 10th season wearing the “C” for the Phoenix Coyotes. In his 18th year playing for the Coyotes/Winnipeg Jets franchise, Doan is still pretty pumped after re-upping with the Coyotes two summers ago following a brief dalliance with several other franchises.

“Since I was a kid, you get excited in October because that’s when hockey started,” he said. “I remember going to school and it started to get a little cooler, and all of a sudden you know you’re going to be able to go get your equipment out and you might get a new stick.

“You’re so excited to play. It’s going to be that way for me until the day I die.”
* Sidney Crosby’s goal in the season opener against the New Jersey Devils was the 666th point of his NHL career. You can’t make this stuff up.
* Interesting to hear that Marc-Andre Fleury has made some changes this season after working with a sports psychologist provided by the Pittsburgh Penguins this summer. Fleury isn’t talking to the media on game days any more, and he has made some other subtle changes to try and reverse a downward trend in his goaltending career. He’s 2-0-0 while stopping 47 of the 48 shots he’s faced thus far this season so perhaps its working. Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero certainly hopes so given the names like Ilya Bryzgalov that are sitting atop the scrap heap while Penguins goalie Tomas Vokoun remains sidelined with a potentially career-ending blood clot issue.
*For those that questioned Marian Hossa’s toughness last summer when he missed Stanley Cup Final games against the Bruins, Hossa also missed the entire exhibition season after aggravating the disc injury. Hossa experienced numbness in his legs and feet last year after suffering the injury, but managed to return in a limited capacity while helping the Blackhawks beat the Bruins.

The 34-year-old Hossa chose rehab over surgery for the back issue over the summer, but it sounds more like something he’s going to be managing moving forward with the Blackhawks.

“I definitely know I have to come a little bit early and do extra stuff to warm up,” said Hossa. “But I think at my age lots of guys do that. Now I just catch up to them and I have to do the same things. Before that, I just came and played and didn’t have to do much. Surgery for me is the last thing when nothing goes right and nothing (works). That’s the last option for me because then you have to rehab a long time and you don’t feel for a while like yourself.

“I look at myself. I’m going to be 35 years old (in January) so I know there are going to be a little more injuries than when I was younger. I try to go into the season in a positive way and try to keep up with the younger guys.”

Aren’t we all, Marian…Aren’t we all?
* Keep an eye on the situation in Buffalo where Tomas Vanek and Ryan Miller are both in the last years of their big contracts with a Sabres team that’s going nowhere. Vanek could make a nice NHL trade deadline acquisition if Buffalo has another miserable season at the bottom of the standings, but it would have to be strictly viewed as a rental. Those around Vanek insist the Sabres forward is headed to the Minnesota Wild once he gets to free agency. He starred at the University of Minnesota and still makes his permanent offseason home in Stillwater, Minnesota.  

*It appeared that Reilly/Brendan Smith wouldn’t be the only NHL sibling rivalry for the Bruins this season when Freddie Hamilton, Dougie’s older brother, made the San Jose Sharks NHL roster out of training camp. The bottom six forward didn’t appear in the Sharks’ opening game, and he was sent back down to their AHL farm club in Worcester almost immediately.

Dougie is still hoping that Freddie will be back up with San Jose when they travel through Boston on Oct. 24 for their regular season appearance at TD Garden, though it would be odd for the two brothers to compete against each other. The only other time Dougie and Freddie have competed on opposite sides of the frozen sheet: Team Canada World Junior camps where Dougie admitted it was “a little weird” to be knocking around his big brother in puck battles.
* Keep shooting the puck at the net and good things are bound to happen.