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October 21, 2011 :: 10:31am ET
Ain't Nothing Gonna Change
Fighting is a long way from being removed from the NHL, explains TFP Senior Writer Dennis Bernstein.

"We need to take the silly stuff out of the game."
--Brian Burke, General Manager, Toronto Maple Leafs, circa 2008-present


LOS ANGELES -- Another NHL controversy, I won't use the term black eye, occurred in Pittsburgh last Thursday night when the Penguins' Arron Asham squared off with the Washington Capitals' Jay Beagle early in the third period of Washington's entertaining 3-2 overtime win.

Up to that point, the game showcased the high skill of stars like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. When Beagle roughed up star Pens' blueliner Kris Letang, a scenario that's occurred thousands of times in rinks around North America over the past century was played out.

Asham, who's carved out a 13 year NHL career despite only scoring 87 goals, will earn a salary of $775,000 this season for the primary ability to protect dudes like Letang, Malkin and Sidney Crosby, when he returns. In the moment, he did exactly as he's done 38 times over the last four seasons; he dropped his gloves and asked Beagle to go.

Listed at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Beagle isn't a weakling, but it was his first recorded NHL scrap. At this point in his career, Jay is a fourth line center on an offensively gifted team and he's been recalled nine times from the Caps' Hershey affiliate in three seasons. Given his precarious position on the roster, Jay had little choice engage as a combatant, though he'd be a +600 betting underdog if they staged the matchup in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand.

The fight went exactly to form; the experienced Asham took the overmatched Beagle out quickly to no one's surprise. His final blow is actually where this story starts, as it landed with such force that Beagle was knocked out and likely received a concussion. In incredibly bad judgment, Asham celebrated as if he'd just beaten Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao. In an effort to mitigate the poor display, Asham gave a mea culpa the next morning, rightfully so due the fact that he missed 21 games last season due to, you guessed it, a concussion, making his display even more insensitive in the game's current atmosphere. I'm sure that many times after doing the job, he's just skated to the box and made no gestures. His reputation is not of a sideshow and more importantly, he's never been suspended for any of his on ice actions. While the display was unfortunate and out of character, it's served up another round of fodder for those anti-fighting proponents.

TSN's Bob McKenzie, who has forgotten more about the game than I know, wrote a great piece about how this go-round fits in it all. The salient point he makes is that for a sport to profess the desire to rid itself of head shots, it makes no sense to keep fighting in the game. Though I come down on the side of keeping it in the game, there is no logic to defend fighting from a safety aspect. As it is with all matters subject to debate, it's a matter of context, especially when you start with the premise that.

Hockey isn't a safe game.

From the sharp skates to the hard ice to men carrying sticks and traveling at speeds of 30 mph (48 kph or so in the Great White North), the likelihood that one who pursues the sport as a profession will leave it without a significant injury is right about zero. The recent policy changes are a good start but haven't gone far enough, specifically lack of changing of the icing rule, which keeps risk of injury higher with little impact on the competitive outcome of a match.

Increased restrictions and the discipline when infractions result (they heavier the better in our eyes) helps but only to a point. The still abundant grey area that leaves the final call in these matters in the hands of new headmaster, the so far very effective Brendan Shanahan will not eliminate the critics who want all violence regulated out of the game.

The naysayers will tell you the reason the NHL hasn't grown more is due to the amount still remaining in the game. The image of Jay Beagle prone on the ice won't appear in the regular spot on ESPN SportsCenter; it will be in the lead package as opposed to hockey's usual place, 22 minutes after the hour. With the NBA lockout increasingly becoming a full season reality by the hour, the producers in Bristol might actually have to put a highlight reel goal in their opening package some nights, a reality that most of their execs despise. While Bernard Hopkins' trademark throat cutting is part of his ring walk pre-fight ritual that is acceptable in boxing, Asham's gesture of putting Beagle to sleep has no room in the game regardless of the side you root for. As for Alex Ovechkin joining the fray with pointed comments, Asham burrowed even farther downward by calling the Great 8's goal celebrations the equivalent of the sleep gesture and managed to call Alex a hypocrite in the bargain. The offender needs to take all the criticism, no matter the source, accept it and vow not to repeat such action. It's not the time for Aaron Asham to debate which on ice celebration is more disrespectful. He needs to own it and man up as you would if you lost a fight to Zenon Konopka.

The reality is that there's far less gratuitous violence in the game now then there was 20 years ago. Back in the day when I rooted for a team, I was riding the Broad Street Bullies train; notorious and hated, but just as exciting and most importantly, winners. Gone are the days of NHL penalty leaders amassing upwards of 400 minutes, what's changed isn't the game's physical nature, but the amount and speed of media attention given to the bad incidences in the sport. Though we're a fan of Don Cherry, he should stick to being an entertainer and run far and fast away from being this game's moral compass. Stu Grimson is just as culpable when he threatens to sue a national icon, love him or hate him, when he criticizes you for public statements made. Grimson could have easily deferred comment but when chose to sit in front of the camera, he forfeits his right of privacy.

Here in Southern California, the enforcers of both the Kings and Ducks, Kevin Westgarth and the affable George Parros are both well publicized graduates of Princeton University, so there's no second coming of Dave "The Hammer" Schultz in these parts. On a grander scale, I'm avoiding the discussion regarding the connection of fighting to this past summer's tragedies as 1) I'm not close to being smart enough to make the causal connection between the two, 2) I know plenty of former enforcers whose prior chosen career have not led them to the darkness, and 3) as with any matter this complex there's never one, absolute easy answer.

I've yet to see dozens of people leave a game at Staples Center due to on ice violence and recalling the punishment the Blackhawks' John Scott laid on the aforementioned Westgarth last season, there's ample opportunity for offended fans to do so.

A couple weeks ago, the Dallas Stars played the Phoenix Coyotes in a game that will only be remembered for the sparse fan attendance due to the fact that it was scheduled directly against a Texas Rangers home playoff game. Halfway through the midst of a lifeless game, Stars captain Brendan Morrow chose to pick a fight with Rostislav Klesla, a defenseman with no more than a handful of scraps over his career. The Dallas forward won the bout, earned an additional minor penalty during the preamble, yet it was looked upon as a 'good' fight by the team captain by attempting to inject some adrenaline into his team. While the fight didn't pay any immediate dividends to Dallas, they did go on to win the match. If you're a supporter of any team, you've been there before, your favorites go down two-nil in the game's first ten minutes, one of your team's tough guys hit the ice and drops the gloves at the next faceoff. "Way to get 'em going," is your response regardless of whether they win or lose that night.

It's not about what one league official or media type wants that will determine the destiny of fighting in the game. It's you, the fan, the hard-working person who puts down their green that ultimately makes that call. If droves of TV viewers turn away from TSN, Sportsnet and NBC or when the turnstiles stop spinning to the 90 plus percent capacity at arenas every night, only then will the game evolve into one without fighting. There's no mistaking the fact that the Ultimate Fighting Championship has sold out Rogers Arena in Vancouver, the Rogers Centre in Toronto and Bell Centre in the Cradle of Hockey, Montreal, and many of those same butts fill the seats to root for Henrik Sedin and PK Subban on alternate nights.

Brian Burke says it's time to take the silly stuff out of the game and I agree; blindside hits, elbows to the head, knee-on-knee collisions benefits no one and have never had a place in hockey. I don't know of a coach in the junior or college ranks who teach such tactics to developing youngsters. But those same kids are the ones that watch the WWE or The Ultimate Fighter where violence, whether staged or otherwise, is glorified. Burke isn't too dissimilar than Vince McMahon, not from the aspect of his stance against violence but because he knows his audience as well as the human condition.

Our need for this controlled violence is wrapped around our DNA and those that point to fighting as the primary reason the NHL doesn't have a greater market share on the sports landscape are mistaken.

Taking fighting out of the game wouldn't have kept the Thrashers in Atlanta and its extraction certainly wouldn't magically fill the thousands of seats empty every night in Columbus and Phoenix.

We're just scratching the surface of the concussion story and if they come to find that fighters have an unusually high rate of concussions as opposed to 'skill' players then only at that point would I say the NHL should look long and hard at its removal. Hockey has settled into its proper space after recovering from the knockdown that was the lockout; it's universally loved in Canada and has fervent support in selected cities in the US. HDTV has helped it immensely, but it will never have as deep and diverse a fan base as the NFL. The growth of the college system and the additional ice surfaces that were built over the past few decades in the lower 48 have produced more players from hometowns in Texas and Southern California.

The revenues keep going up, as do the salaries, but the reality is that the NHL is a niche sport and any rule changes, whether they pertain to fighting or not, will not appreciably move the needle one way or another. There were 14 games on the docket on Saturday night and there were seven fights, two of which were by combatants that could both be classified "heavyweights," an amount which is average and non-alarming.

While hockey can be a cerebral game at times, its appeal is far more visceral. It is a sport with great history and character but has its flaws and if fighting is one, it will have to be accepted by the critics for because the bottom line is the majority of the fans enjoy it.

There's an anecdote I always convey when people ask my opinion on why fighting is still ingrained in the lifeblood of hockey, it goes something like this:

You're in your car and sitting at a traffic light at a downtown intersection in endless rush hour traffic. While waiting for the cars to move at a snail's pace, you glance at the four street corners; on one there's two kids kicking a soccer ball, another they're shooting hoops and on the third, they're throwing a football.

On the last corner, two guys are having a fist fight.

Which one are you watching?

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com.
You can also visit Dennis on Twitter.


 

 

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