Ray Shero: NHL Needs to Look at Fighting

By now you've probably seen or heard about the George Parros situation from yesterday. You've probably also realized that the fighting debate has once again come up in the media, on blogs and on Twitter. Personally, I (Rick) don't feel that fighting has a place in hockey any longer. Here's an explanation as to why in the form of a post that I wrote a few years ago. If you've followed me on Twitter, you know how I feel about it. I know that many disagree with me.

But enough about me. This post isn't about me. It's about a recent blog post by Darren Dreger of TSN on fighting and fighting in general. The Dreger post includes a section on Penguins' general manager Ray Shero:

Pittsburgh's Ray Shero has been a strong advocate in the league's crackdown on checking to the head. He believes that the NHL has a responsibility to consider a ban on fighting and not just simply raise the discussion when an isolated incident happens.

"It won't happen overnight, but we need to be leaders, not followers in this area," he explained. "I respect other GMs and their views, but we need to look at this and not just when an incident like last night (Parros) happens."

It's obvious why Shero feels that way. He doesn't have a team like the Leafs that has multiple enforcers. It's in his best interest to want to reduce fighting.

Steve Yzerman, general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning and former Red Wings superstar, takes Shero's point even further:

"Yes, I believe a player should get a game misconduct for fighting," Yzerman told The Dreger Report. "We penalize and suspend players for making contact with the head while checking, in an effort to reduce head injuries, yet we still allow fighting.

"We're stuck in the middle and need to decide what kind of sport do we want to be. Either anything goes and we accept the consequences, or take the next step and eliminate fighting."

Someone should tell that Yzerman guy that he's "never played the game."

People who like fighting say that it's important to the game, but statistics and facts (not emotion and feeling) show that fights rarely happen when games are close. If it's so important to the game and if it changes momentum so easily, why isn't it happening more often during the most important parts of games?

By "the players like it!", people scream. Yes, they do. At least publicly. 98% of players say that they don't think fighting should be "completely banished." Of course, if most of us were asked publicly if an aspect of our job should be "completely banished," we'd probably say no too. People don't like to talk in extremes.

People also don't like to look "weak" in front of the other "tough guys" on their team. Plus, most teams have at least one player who fights. Saying that fighting should be completely banished is like saying that guy shouldn't be in the league, and not many people would willing say that about a teammate.

Don't believe NHL players might publicly state that they have a different opinion than they really do in order to keep up appearances? Take the band Nickelback. If you asked 100 people if they like Nickelback, at least 98 of them would say no. But Nickelback is incredibly successful. A large group of people must be buying their songs and paying to see their shows, probably a lot more people than would admit to liking the band. A lot of people are probably keeping up appearances when they say they hate Nickelback. In this case, fighting is Nickelback. That's right. 

Of course, there are other options other than "completely banishing" fighting such as stiffer penalties and fines, but I don't think the NHLPA has ever polled players on those. A "completely ban" would likely be impossible, but a lot can be done to reduce the number of fights that take place.

One thing most people can agree on is that "designated fighters," "enforcers" and "staged fights" are generally pointless in today's game.

James Mirtle has more:

And despite protestations to the contrary, it’s become a relatively small sideshow that has been marginalized to the point there is on average less than one fight every two NHL games.

Those throwing punches, meanwhile, play such fringe minutes they often are referred to as grocery sticks – i.e. the warm bodies that serve to only separate other players on the bench.

As for the entertainment value of the spectacle, well, the full extent of the damage done to Parros is not yet known, and the 10 minutes or so he remained on the ice were some of worst that can be experienced by anyone at a professional sporting event.

That certainly has to detract from the “take fans out of their seats” factor many refer to whenever the fighting debate comes up.

But what’s even more unfortunate is that a sport built on speed and skill and brawn and full of amazing moments allows it to happen again and again to great people like Parros and justifies it as part of the game.

And Bruce Arthur has more on fighting:

This is an article of faith in many places in the National Hockey League. Fighters protect stars; fighting changes momentum; fighting energizes a team; fighting can change a game. None of it applies in the playoffs, and there’s little solid evidence that the momentum swing actually exists, but the faith endures. Visors are being grandfathered in, and there is this new penalty for removing your helmet before a fight; in response, Tuesday night Toronto’s Mark Fraser negotiated with Montreal’s Travis Moen for 30 seconds so they would do it at the same time before fighting, and both get the penalty. Fraser is a smart guy, too.

Nobody questions the courage of the men who fight. But it seems so long ago that we were all worried after the deaths of Wade Belak, of Rick Rypien, of Derek Boogaard. Their deaths raised complex issues of depression, of whether depression was linked to fighting, of suicide, of the easy access to painkillers, of overdoses, of what this thing makes some men do. The discussion flared, and … vanished. Nothing was resolved.

This won’t change anything. We will jump on the merry-go-round, talk it over, jump off. But George Parros has hurt people, and he has gotten hurt, and as he lay there I wondered how there can’t be a better way to police this game. I wondered about the cost of doing business. On Hockey Night in Canada Ron MacLean said, “Our guilty pleasure too often becomes our guilty conscience.” Yeah.

People often say that fighting is "part of the game." Yeah, but so was a whistle for a two-line pass. So was players without helmets and goaltenders without masks. So was the Hartford Whalers. Things change. A lot of players were against mandating visors at one point, but the league did it anyway because the game had changed. A lot of players were probably against wearing helmets and masks at one point, but the league did it anyway because the game had changed. A lot of players and general managers were against hybrid icing, but it was still implemented.

Years ago we would all watch Scott Stevens hand out concussions and cheer. Now we cringe when one of those hits happens and we look for a penalty or a suspension. Things that were once "part of the game" are no longer considered to be so crucial.

You can't get rid of staged fighting without harsher penalties for all fighting. How would you determine which fight was staged and which fight wasn't? But if you handed out serious penalties accompanied by player and team fines, you'd drastically cut down on the "useless" fights while still allowing the "good" fights (and I use that term loosely here) to continue. Similar harsh punishments should be handed down for cheap shots and dirty play. Those don't belong in the game either. Many used to celebrate Bobby Clarke breaking Valeri Kharlamov's ankle, but those days are over too.

People say that fighting polices the game, but what should be policing the game is effective and consistent officiating and supplementary disciple by the league. The NHL is dropping by the ball and putting players at risk by letting the players "solve" dirty play with their fists rather than solving it with consistently-enforced rules.

I recognize that this is a very long post. I recognize that a lot of people reading it will hate it. I also recognize that a lot of people won't read it at all. That's what I expect and I understand that. But if you did read it, thanks. I promise I won't do this too often.