January 29, 2009
Can't stop the brawling

[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- Throughout the 2008-09 season, there has been continuing dialogue about the status of fighting in professional hockey. As we reached the All Star break, the volume and tenor of the discussion has increased to a point where a growing faction of critics are calling for the elimination of fisticuffs from the National Hockey League. The initial flashpoint of this round of criticism was the tragic death of Don Sanderson in an Ontario Senior League game early this season and was augmented this past weekend in an AHL contest.

Then during the opening faceoff of the Manchester Monarchs and Philadelphia Phantoms game this past weekend, Manchester's Kevin Westgarth and Philadelphia's Garrett Klotz agreed to go at it. As their fight went up against the boards at the teamís benches, Westgarth landed three consecutive rights that crumpled Klotz to the ice and caused him to go into a convulsive state. Comcast TV captured the scariness on the ice and the fear in the faces of the Philadelphia fans as paramedics worked to stabilize the fallen Klotz. He was taken to an area hospital for examination and fortunately, no permanent damage was done.

The Sanderson tragedy combined with the Klotz video has brought out the critics again. Virtually all the negativity flows from those who donít cover the sport regularly, they rant about the brutality of fighting in the sport and question why the NHL doesnít legislate against it. Iíve never been a big fan of fighting but understand its placement in the texture of the sport. The reality is that fighting wonít be extracted from the fabric of the game now or anytime in our lifetime. The reasons are both internal and external to the NHL and weíll try to make sense of it all and also present the counterpoint.

With respect to the recent Klotz-Westgarth incident, it wasnít a case of an enforcer tracking down a teamís star and pummeling him to the ice; both combatants are in the 6-foot-4 range and fourth line enforcers. While Westgarth got the best of the row, the convulsions werenít caused by Klotz falling to the ice with an unprotected head like Sanderson did, but rather from the rapidity and force of the blows. Unfortunate, yes but unforeseen as well.

I asked my co-host on the "TFP Today" podcast, former NHL forward Sean Pronger, about the potential outlawing of fighting.

"The problem with eliminating fighting is you play a very intense, passionate game with a stick in your hands. If you eliminate fighting, youíll see a heavy increase in stick fouls," Pronger related; so in essence plugging one hole would cause as big a leak somewhere else.

The reality is that the percentage of injuries resulting from on ice fights are minimal and when incurred are rarely head injuries, the real culprit and much higher risks are involved when players get hit from behind. In most of these cases, the victim never sees the hit coming with his head and neck exposed to boards that are not forgiving. If the NHL continues to be focus on those types of hits, the potential devastating injuries that result should be very minimal, further vigilant enforcement of this rule. A potential rule change to automatic icing, thereby eliminating those all out rushes to the puck, would cut down on injuries as well.

The opponents of fighting that possess legitimate knowledge of the game point to one team as the model for a fight free game, the Detroit Red Wings. They are arguably the best team in the league over the past decade and routinely have the least amount of fighting majors in the league. At present, their lineup doesnít include an enforcer and they are on track to defend their championship. While there is no designee to protect their stars, especially the non-combative Europeans, the team has the requisite veteran toughness on the ice (read: Draper, Maltby, Chelios) to prevent opponents from taking liberties. A very fair and legitimate point and frankly, a stance hard to give a reasonable argument against.

Other detractors say that the violence (most of the time simulated at best) prevent new fans from watching the game. Those critics donít have a clue with respect to what fans want when they spent the dwindling excess income on sporting events. In a game that determined the AFC qualifier to the Super Bowl, a play late in the fourth quarter was more vicious as any youíd ever see on NHL ice. The Baltimore Ravensí Willis McGahee caught a short pass over the middle in the hopes of getting his team back in the game. Two Pittsburgh Steelers defenders quickly closed in on him and one, safety Ryan Clark delivered a blow to McGaheeís head that immediate knocked the runner unconscious and motionless while the deliverer of the shot was prone on the ground too. The Baltimore player was then carted off the field and Clark needed assistance as well, the hit was replayed on the live broadcast and showed numerous times on SportsCenter with the explanation that, ďitís a manís game; itís part of the game, etc.Ē

When asked to recant the play, McGahee explained, "I was scared, but I didn't know how serious it was. It was pretty intense. I didn't even see him coming. I blacked out. I woke up when they were taking my facemask off. I opened my eyes and I was talking. The next thing I knew I woke up in some room and they were taking me to the ambulance."

Yet in the following days I saw no outcries of a willingness to change football to flag or two hand touch game.

To further the point, a couple of sporting events held in Southern California during All Star weekend will drive home the status of violence on the North American sports landscape. The Antonio Margarito-Shane Mosley WBA welterweight championship was staged at Staples Center in front of a RECORD crowd of 20,380, the largest event to see any event in that venue. Simultaneously 50 miles down the road I covered the Affliction MMA event at Honda Center in front of an estimated 13,000 fans. So you have over 30,000 fans bearing witness to a contest where the goal of the combatants is to punish the other into submission. On this evening that is exactly what occurred, Mosley systematically beat down his Mexican opponent, dropping him twice to the floor before his handlers and not the fighter, gave up. A few minutes later, I witnessed Fedor Emelianenko lift the 6í 4Ē 237 pound Andrei Arlovski into the air with one punch and then had him crash to the mat on his face. As they say in fighting, itís never good when you fall on your face. The cheers from the fans in both cases were loud and strong and no one came away from either event looking to outlaw the violence or saying theyíd never return. As it relates to the NHL, the fans who regularly attend mixed martial arts events are exactly the type that the league wants to lure, white males in their 20ís and 30ís with disposable income. These fans arenít averse to fighting; in fact theyíd welcome a fairly contested brawl. Most nights in the NHL, the loudest cheers are usually reserved for the shootout and the fights.

The reality is that violence appeals to our inner most primal instincts, itís in our DNA. The best example of this is a scenario I present to people as to why I like to cover boxing and mixed martial arts and its inherent violence -- see for yourself.

Imagine yourself pulling up to red light at a major intersection in your town. While youíre waiting for the light to turn, you look at all four corners and see the following. On one corner, two kids are kicking a soccer ball, the next they are playing catch with a football, on the third theyíre shooting hoops. Then looking at the fourth, you notice that two guys are having a fist fight. Which one are you going to watch? If you donít say the fight, youíre lying. The violence appeals to an innate instinct that dates back to a time when man came out of the water and started to walk erect on land.

You know the cat that likes fighting, he sits next to you at the game, has a couple of brews and debriefs his friends who werenít there by answering the following questions, ďWho scored? Who fought? How was the beer?Ē

Theyíre relatively harmless people and vent their frustrations of daily life by watching the likes of Westgarth and Klotz go at each other. I canít recall a time in my ten years of covering the NHL where a fan came up to me and said, ĎI went to a game and I didnít like the fighting so I never went back.Ē The fact remains that the bench clearing brawls of the 70ís and 80ís are gone; those actions have been correctly legislated out of the game. The people that claim that the game is too violent are the ones that see a 30 second video clip on ESPN or the local news and never attend games; sadly itís the only time in most American media markets when hockey gets extended play. The Bertuzzi and McSorley incidents werenít cases where players were squared up and went at each other; both were cases of players being victimized from behind. Those actions bordered on criminal behavior, should never be condoned but are the ones that critics adhere to when they look for abolishment.

But donít think the NHL doesnít intimately know the demographics of its fan base. When word of the Westgarth incident wafted up to Montreal, Toronto General Manager Brian Burke, the face of what defines old school NHL, was clear on fighting place in the game.

"If we remove fighting, we cannot create a safe workplace for our players. If fighting were eliminated, no one will come out and watch," the blustery executive exclaimed.

Burke added that if the subject was to come up at a future GM meeting, "it will be a short conversation."

The man with an even larger vote succinctly encapsulates league and ownership position, "I believe that most of our fans enjoy that aspect of the game," said Commissioner Gary Bettman.

To eliminate fighting from hockey will eliminate a significant facet of fans, a decision which makes no economic sense in these most challenging of times. As the NHL primarily derives most of its revenue from live gate (people that come through the door), the risk of slicing in to attendance figures is a bad business decision. In a time where top player salaries are approaching $10 million and houses like Phoenix and Florida are half filled most nights, all decisions are strictly business, not personal.

TWO PERSONAL NOTES

For those uninformed about my writing background, Iíve been at it for over a decade and its origin was entertaining. Growing up in New York, I was a big fan of the Rangers before moving to New Jersey and switching my allegiance in the mid 70ís to the Broad Street Bullies, the Philadelphia Flyers. In the 80ís and early 90ís I got away from the game for various reasons. Relocating to northern New Jersey, I met a good friend, John Artinian who was close to the New Jersey Devils and got re-introduced to the game at the time the Devils won their first Stanley Cup. I got to know and become friends with the likes of Martin Brodeur and then decided to find a way to get into hockey games for free. I thought, Ďwhy not start a media company? Theyíd have to let me in then.í I formed Score! Media (which has morphed into SCORE! Media Ventures) and started a fan newsletter dedicating coverage to the Devils. I couldnít have picked a worse team to attempt give additional promotion to. Run by iron fisted Lou Lamoriello, the Devils did everything in their power to shut me down. For those who know me, the worst thing you can do is tell me I canít do something, I will then come at you with more vigor to accomplish what I sent out to do; itís the New Yorker in me.

While doing research on the internet, I found a site called In The Crease that was looking for additional writers. I submitted material and over time was entertaining enough to get my own column. I continued to work at my craft and subsequently moved to Los Angeles where ESPN Radio let me do national analyst work during the 2000 Stanley Cup playoffs and the Los Angeles Kings exercised great wisdom in granting me season credentials. I had made it. When In the Crease sadly imploded, I was fortunate enough to meet up with Dave Pagnotta, the founder and creator of this great site and fooled him as well; I had another soapbox for my occasional brilliance and more often, lunacy.

Recently, it was revealed to me that others far more accomplished than me took notice as well. During January, the Kings held an unprecedented sale of remaining tickets for their January contests. All remaining tickets went on sale at $11.50 and with my fiancťe being a big hockey fan, it made sense to forgo the $7 dinner in the press room and free popcorn and soda in the press box to sit at center ice for 22 bucks. On the night of the January 11 contest against Tampa Bay, I got a ping on my Blackberry from a colleague, Gann Matsuda relating that Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times wanted to speak to me. If you know the sport on any level, you know Helene is the legendary Hall of Fame writer who was one of the first women to venture into a hockey locker room and has forgotten more about the game than I know.

She wanted to talk to me about joining the Professional Hockey Writers Association and to be honest I thought she had the wrong Dennis Bernstein. When I started writing a decade ago, I thought it would be great to just meet a legend like her. To have her consider me for inclusion to an association of her and her peers was both flattering and overwhelming. The association had been limited to just print writers over the years but as the media business has evolved over the last decade, the door has opened for individuals like me for consideration. When Helene conveyed to me that, ďIíve read your work and youíre certainly qualified,Ē it was the final affirmation to an idea borne in a New Jersey high rise so many years ago.

For those who aspire to achieve what I have, there is a moral to the story. Iím probably the only member of the PHWA with an undergraduate degree in Accounting and a Masters in Finance. I got a C in English in my first year of college and never took a journalism or creative writing course. But I was observant, I listened instead of talked, I was passionate about the game and was respectful of those who I could learn from. I learned to build relationships with people that opened doors because I believe that on balance, people do want to help others to succeed. So because I did things the right way and believed in karma, Iíve arrived at my desired destination. To Helene Elliott, I owe a debt of gratitude that cannot easily be repaid but must acknowledge her efforts in expediting my candidacy.

While I missed the All Star Game festivities, I was fortunate enough to experience a special event last week that was a tad bit larger than the happenings in Montreal. Through the good graces of Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA, Sherman Oaks), we were able to witness the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama. The Inauguration Day experience was everything that was reported; cold (well, not Montreal cold but still), crowds, lots of waiting and more crowds. The better part of the trip was the invitation from Congressman Sherman to visit the floor of the House of Representatives and the State Department. Iíve never been much of a politico (my pal Al Bernstein of Showtime Championship Boxing once said, ďDennis is like Switzerland. You never really know where he stands politically,Ē), you canít help but feel more involved in the process when youíre sitting in the seats where they actually make (or most time attempt to make) laws. Sherman provided an unexpected bonus during our House visit by leading us from the House chamber, along the outside of the Capitol and down to the platform where the President took the oath as the accompanying photo showed. Iíve had the privilege of access to places most others havenít but even I was overwhelmed when standing in the footsteps of history.

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Los Angeles Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com.
 
  Archives:
Jan. 07, 2009 Phoenix to Ashes
Dec. 19, 2008 Don't Get Me Started!
Dec. 04, 2008 An American in the Prairies
Nov. 22, 2008 Maybe the Q is part of the A
Nov. 01, 2008 The Plot Thickens
Oct. 27, 2008 Pinging Away
Oct. 16, 2008 West Coast Bias
Sept. 30, 2008 Life is a Spectrum
Sept. 26, 2008 My kind of town
Sept. 10, 2008 Say it ain't so, Joe


 

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