Thursday October 9th, 2014

There was a great sketch this season on Key & Peele about battling aliens who have the ability to assume human form. The only flaw in the invaders' plan? They kept revealing themselves to be aliens by acting contrary to the stereotype of the human they were trying to mimic.

I thought of that on the opening night of the new NHL season while watching Mike Milbury burn one of his most cherished positions to the ground.

Fighting, he said, has got to go.

The caustic commentator gets paid to toss the occasional grenade on NBCSN's NHL coverage. But Wednesday night was something else. Asked to consider the diminished presence of enforcers on opening night rosters around the league, Milbury delivered a clear message.

NHL's 50 landmark hockey fights

“It's telling me it's time to get rid of fighting. It's telling me it's over,” he said. “Much as I liked a good scrap in my day, [there are] too many issues here involving concussions, too many problems. The teams are going away from it. Let's grow up and get rid of it.”

Partner Keith Jones suggested that there's still room for spontaneous combat, but Mad Mike was unswayed.

“If you can eliminate certain things ... that would eliminate concussions, you have to do it,” he said. “There are too many guys seriously hurt. It's time.”

That's one bold about-face. This is, after all, a guy who made his name playing for Don Cherry's Lunchpail AC in Boston, and who engaged in more than 75 fights in his 12-season NHL career. In his career as a broadcaster, Milbury has railed against “the pansification of the NHL,” and just last season ripped former Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik for failing to answer the bell when challenged by the Bruins' Shawn Thornton in the wake of a particularly nasty hit.

So, what gives?

Here's a crazy thought: Maybe the guy just changed his mind.

Startling, sure. But no one, not even the staunchest defenders of fighting—myself among them—should have a problem with that. And no one should label Milbury a hypocrite for reversing course, either.

The fact is, there's a growing number of valid arguments that support the reduction—if not the outright elimination, of fisticuffs—not the least of which is irreversible brain damage and the legal peril it creates for the league. Outlawing fighting won't eliminate concussions, but there's no denying that it would reduce them. And not just in the NHL, but at lower levels of hockey where players who are hungry for attention are willing to do whatever it takes to get it.

Maybe that's what swayed Milbury. Or maybe he just sees the impending demise of the professional goon as reason enough to change his mind. Either way, he deserves credit rather than criticism.

It takes guts to let go of a previously cherished notion. In doing so, Milbury proved he can't be stereotyped.

• The best and worst of Mad Mike Milbury

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