The National Hockey League has vowed to confront the issue of concussions head on. There is certainly evidence to suggest it has: In the last few weeks alone, rules have been clarified and stricter discipline mandated and enforced for hits to the head, particularly from behind.
But what about that age-old hockey tradition of two men standing toe-to-toe and punching one another in the face?
“I think when you go and fight someone, if [both guys] drop the gloves and go straight at each other, maybe every 15 times somebody gets hurt,” Nashville Predators forward Patric Hornqvist said. “I think it’s not about fighting. When guys sucker punch someone who’s not ready, or coming from behind — when you don’t see the play, that’s when somebody gets hurt out there.”
There always exists a low rumble of dissent over whether fighting has a legitimate and worthwhile place in professional hockey. Advocates see its inclusion as something of a cold war effect, where the possibility of a fight limits other inappropriate and possibly provocative acts. Detractors see it as barbaric and inconsistent with the speed and skill showcased in much of the rest of the sport.
Given the current climate, the timing seems right for the league — if it wants — to take a serious look at eliminating the bare-knuckled blows to the head that occur outside the flow of play, with the clock stopped and the majority of those on the ice standing and watching.
At a recent general managers’ meeting devoted almost exclusively to the issue of head injuries, though, the issue didn’t come up.
“That’s not to say it’s not something that needs to be or shouldn’t be considered somewhere down the road,” Predators general manager David Poile said. “There’s still a strong majority feeling of people in the hockey business that it’s part of the game, it serves a purpose in the game.
“My feelings are changing. I’m less of a proponent of fighting.”
The Predators’ own history suggests that fighting is not necessary to a team’s success, although it can be an element.
Nashville made the playoffs for the first time in 2003-04, when it led the NHL with 79 fighting majors, easily the most in franchise history. The next season (following the lockout that canceled 2004-05), the Predators won more than 40 games for the first time and had just 30 fights.
The Predators entered the NHL with a bang — so to speak — as forward Patrick Cote was the league’s individual leader in fighting majors in 1998-99, the team’s inaugural season, with 30. Following Cote, Poile has tried to maintain a consistent physical presence on the roster with the likes of Stu Grimson, Jim McKenzie, Brantt Myhres and Darcy Hordichuk, among others. Grimson’s Nashville tenure ended after just three months due to the effects of post-concussion syndrome, which he attributes to the cumulative effect of his style of play.
Most recently, the fighter role fell to Wade Belak, who was waived after having been scratched for all but 15 games. Not coincidentally, the Predators were on pace to set a franchise record for fewest fights in a season.
“I think it’s part of the game,” Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter said. “Otherwise, you have guys running around and there would probably be more injuries — as strange as it sounds — if there isn’t fighting, because guys would just run around and they wouldn’t have to worry about anyone coming after them. I think the fact that there is fighting, I think that helps, it limits the head injuries.”
A look at the NHL this season offers no greater sense of clarity.
Vancouver has the best record in the league and is in the bottom one-third in fights. Pittsburgh, the Stanley Cup champion from two seasons ago and considered one of the more skillful teams, is one of the top three in fights.
If the tide has turned anywhere, it’s in response to multi-player encounters. A February brawl between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins resulted in 346 penalty minutes, 10 ejections, 15 fighting majors and 20 misconducts. The Islanders later were fined $100,000, and two of their players were suspended a total of 13 games — punishment that Penguins owner and former NHL great Mario Lemieux deemed insufficient.
Last month, the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League came under fire when their annual School Days game, played in front of 3,600 elementary and junior high children, included a brawl that led to the ejection of four players. The team later apologized.
Still — and this might come as a surprise to some — fighting is not universally a part of the game. It does not exist in international hockey competitions such as the Olympics or World Championships. European professional leagues and college hockey in the U.S. also don’t allow it.
Poile admits that the amount of hits to the head in the college game approaches “ridiculous” at times. Suter, a veteran of international play, says dangerous plays are more prevalent in those competitions.
“Again, if you’re one who believes there should be fighting you say that would never happen if they have that,” Poile said. “Once again, we have to find the balance and the right answer.”
For now, there’s not even a question.
“I think fighting is a part of the game, and it’s been there for so long,” Hornqvist said. “I don’t think anything’s going to change that.”