I am writing this on the evening after the nasty brawl between the Rangers and Oilers of November 14th. As I do so it occurs to me that whenever I post this, as long as it’s hockey season and Avery and his ilk are active, there will be something in the immediate past that stands as an example of why fighting is in the game. This kind of brawl reflects poorly on the sport, and whatever the Bettmanites believe, it does not draw in fans in the South as quickly as it alienates them in the North.
The above statement will be expanded upon soon in this forum, but for now let’s just agree that isn’t the most important reason why that kind of thing should be unacceptable in the NHL. The brawl is particularly nasty because it involved not just more than two people, but also people on the bench, and caused such commotion that the game was delayed longer than any reasonable fan wants to wait for anything other than intermission. The bottom line for the league is that violence has become a business problem.
This brawl itself was, however, not an example of ‘what is wrong with hockey’ as such, but rather is symptomatic of it. The reality is that the first moment in the sequence in which an injury was substantially more likely than in game play was Avery’s cheap hit on Smid. He made as if to skate away, and then attacked. It was not a hockey play, and it was not a fight.
Everything after that is significant in a discussion about who should get one kind of penalties et cetera, however if you remove the Avery action which started it all, the rest of it simply would not have occurred. Not all fights in hockey are a result of this kind of often injurious behavior, and most fights do not involve injuries. Most fights do involve players who are essentially designated fighters, and almost all which involve other players can be traced causally, without thinking too hard about it, to something recent which involved one player taking a cheap shot at another.
Consider famous NHL catastrophes such as Bertuzzi/Moore, and McSorley/Braeshear. In both cases a player attempted to instigate a fight with another to address cheap shots. It is easy but more probably incorrect to say that eliminating fighting would have changed either incident. Cheap shots occasion redress.
So what do you do about it? The league’s approach appears to be to deny that there is such a thing as a cheap shot (please recall Bettman’s ‘credit to the league’ comment about Darius Kasperitus, who had inarguably ended a star player’s career with a cheap shot just previously), while handing out the occasional suspension. This is ineffective doublethink. One possible solution is to crack down in a meaningful way on cheap shots. Some misguided souls fear a drop in ratings if the Avery’s of the league disappear, but how many Vogue readers bought an NHL centre ice package? Some more appropriately fear diving, but this already a growing curse which needs to be nipped in the bud, so get out the suspension book and take care of both birds with that stone! The NHL should appeal to hockey fans. Seems straightforward, doesn’t it Gary? Gary?