"The finest game in the world to watch, hockey as our leading Canadian teams play it, is being made a byword and a disgrace by the manner in which matches are conducted and foul play tolerated."
- Stanley Cup trustee P. D. Ross in 1904
I went to a senior A league game on the weekend, and, to my pleasant surprise, no fights broke out. I suspect Hockey Night in Canada's presence and a sell out crowd full of kids greatly encouraged these players to behave themselves. I'm glad, because it was fun, entertaining weekend for the whole family.
Too often in these senior A games what did we see? Fights. Lots of them. It's the same at rinks across the country. You will watch the local Coca Cola sales rep drop the gloves with the Xerox repair man, or a burly machinist attacking a 2nd year community college student.
The question is why? There is only one real reason for it. Because the hockey culture accepts it, and even encourages it. And that culture is set by the National Hockey League.
I have always supported the spontaneous fight at the NHL level. I reasoned that it acts as a form of self policing. Or at least it used to. Nowadays it is all too staged, and usually for no reason at all. And when there is a reason, it is commonly inappropriate. I absolutely hate it when a player is attacked because he threw a clean hit on another player.
I still think if a player at the NHL level does something dirty or reckless to another player on the ice, he should expect to have to pay some punishment. And a 2 minute penalty does not count. We need to eliminate dirty players, reckless players and pests from the game, one way or another. Until they are eliminated by stiffer penalties, fighting will continue as a necessary evil.
But it need not continue at any level below the NHL. Most youth leagues have severe punishments now, and that's good. Many senior leagues do too, and, in the name of Don Sanderson, all should institute significant penalties now. Even major junior leagues should also fall in line. If we can eliminate the breeding ground for future NHL pugilists, that's a big key right there.
I don't just mean fight and you're out of the game. Fight and you're out for five games.
We can change the rules all we want at the grass roots levels, but eliminating fighting is truly a cultural change in hockey. The only way we can change that culture is from the top down. The NHL sets the culture, and needs to be held responsible for it.
The NHL needs to immediately curtail the staged fighting. Get rid of the guys who are there strictly to fight.
They also need to revamp the instigator rule, which not only is not working and has encouraged even more pests in our game. If a player runs over a goalie, he should be held responsible for instigating the ensuing melee. Eliminating the pest is almost as necessary as eliminating the resident goon, although you do not hear this rallying cry hardly ever.
Cleaning up these two parts of the game are essential. Then we can look at fights that will still inevitably occur. You can never eliminate fighting from any sport, or bar or school. Things happen, and I still think in hockey there are times when a genuinely, spontaneous fight has a point.
It may already be too late to eliminate much of the fighting in the NHL and at the same time keep those spontaneous fights in the game. Perhaps we can tag on a mandatory 10 minute misconduct in a consensual fight, with significant suspensions for instigating unwanted fights. But if we continue the current course, the only solution will be to eliminate it completely.
Hockey needs a significant cultural change to eliminate the acceptance of fighting in all levels of the game. The only way to bring about that cultural change is to start at the top. Hopefully the NHL realizes it's responsibilities, and soon.
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