The National Hockey League is lucky, in a way.
What was once a major issue – fighting – has all but taken care of itself.
Fighting is down significantly, to the point where the only time people really talk about it these days is to mention that fighting is, well, down.
In 2012-13 there were an average of 0.96 fighting majors called per game. It slipped to 0.76 in 2013-14 and 0.63 in ’14-15. This season through games played Nov. 12, 0.46 fighting majors have been called per game.
It is not the result of a league mandate. And commissioner Gary Bettman didn’t have to threaten to send serial fighters to Winnipeg for the remainder of their careers if they didn’t cease their antisocial behavior.
It just kind of happened.
There is a greater emphasis on speed and skill in today’s game that has resulted in most teams no longer choosing to employ designated fighters.
The question now is, what’s next with fighting in the NHL? Does the league just sit back with its feet up on the desk or does it get proactive and strike while the iron is hot? By that I mean make fighting illegal once and for all, punishable by ejection from the game. A few years ago that would have been a dramatic step. Not now. For the first time, players are speaking through their action. No matter what they might say, their actions are screaming out to take fighting out of the game.
It is not unprecedented and it seems like only a matter of time before fighting leads to dismissal from the game.
Fighting is not allowed in international hockey and the best hockey we have seen in the last 10 years has been at the Olympics as well as the World Junior Championship. The players who participated in those events did so without the fear of having to defend themselves with their fists. Nor is fighting allowed in college hockey.
Actually, the NHL may soon have no choice but to eject players from games for fighting. The concern for player safety in all sports has never been higher and with former players from the NFL and NHL suing leagues for damage suffered during their playing careers, everything possible should be done to ensure players are as safe as possible.
Two separate groups of players have filed lawsuits against the NHL seeking compensation for head injuries. The lawyers will duke that one out.
In the meantime, the NHL has to be concerned about the rash of deaths of young men who made their living as fighters. Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, Steve Montador and most recently Todd Ewan all played the role of enforcer and all died young.
It used to be hockey teams were run by men who either never played the game or didn’t play at a high level for a sustained time. Those guys seemed to be afraid to mess with what others referred to as the fabric of the game and therefore fighting remained.
Now, though, we have teams being run by Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic, and Ron Francis – NHL superstars in their day. The voices at the NHL’s general managers meeting are changing and if the trend of teams hiring former star players continues, soon we’ll have a roomful of GMs who won’t hesitate to do the right thing and make fighting illegal.
It is obvious players no longer feel obligated to fight and seem more interested in just playing the game. The game’s young stars have not had to fight their way to the top and they prefer to put an accent on skill over scrapping.
Of course fighting hasn’t been completely eliminated from the NHL. Andy Andreoff of the Los Angeles Kings was tied for the league lead in fighting majors with Cody McLeod of the Colorado Avalanche as of Nov. 13 with five in 15 games. Andreoff apparently didn’t get the memo that fighting was on the way out. Last season in 18 games with the Kings he had two fights.
A word of advice, Andy, work on your skillset because your days of staying in the NHL simply as a fighter are numbered.
Also, the Arizona Coyotes continue to employ minimally skilled John Scott, for his 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds, but have only dressed him for three games during which he averaged 6:27 ice time. His days as a big league hockey player are also numbered.
Fighting is trending downward and the NHL has a great opportunity to beat the lawyers and insurance companies to the punch by making it illegal and punishable by a game misconduct.