Jarome Iginla: Hockey is better, safer with fighting in it

A skilled player, Jarome Iginla (12) doesn't fight often, but he can hold his own when he does.
Michael Dwyer/AP

With more than 1,100 points and 850 penalty minutes, Bruins winger Jarome Iginla has been one of the game's premier power forwards for 17 years. He's won two Olympic gold medals for Canada, in 2002 and 2010, when he assisted on Sidney Crosby's overtime winner in a 3-2 victory over the U.S. in the finals of the Vancouver Games. Iginla is also respected as a leader by active players. A veteran of more than 60 bouts in the NHL, here are his thoughts about the role of fighting in the game today.

Fighting in hockey is obviously a hot-button issue these days and just about everyone associated with the game -- from parents of young players to high school coaches, fans, and NHL GMs -- has an opinion on the subject. Does fighting still have a place in today's NHL? My answer is a qualified yes. I temper my response because I don't know of any player who truly loves fighting. Ideally it would not be a part of the game. But the nature of our sport is such that fighting actually curtails many dirty plays that could result in injuries.

In my opinion, what makes hockey special is its combination of skill, intensity, speed, emotion and physicality. The play is hard-hitting like in football, and the players are highly skilled on an individual level, just as they are in basketball, baseball and soccer. But hockey is much faster than those sports and is played with big sticks and a heavy puck that can travel at speeds in excess of 90 miles an hour. As a consequence our sport is intense. It is impossible for two referees, or even three, to keep track of everything that happens on the ice.

One misconception about fighting is that it is for entertainment, a spectacle for the fans. But most hockey players do not see themselves as boxers or fighters. We would all rather be scoring a goal -- or preventing one! While I agree that fighting has entertainment value and is enjoyed by many fans, there is a lot more to it than that. There is a purpose behind almost every fight. I have fought -- and my teammates have, too -- to stick up for myself or to stand up for a teammate who had been the victim of dirty play. And I do acknowledge that fighting can provide an emotional lift for a team. A player who drops his gloves and puts himself in harm's way on behalf of his teammates is selfless and courageous. And those are qualities that all hockey players respect.

Fighting helps hold players accountable for their actions on the ice, even more so than penalties. If it was taken out of the game, I believe there would be more illegal stickwork, most of it done out of sight of the referees; more slashes to the ankles or wrists, and in between pads; and more cross checks to the tailbone. Incidents of players taking such liberties are rare in today's game because fighting gives us the ability to hold each other accountable. If you play dirty, you're going to have to answer for it.

In my experience, players -- even the ones who fight frequently -- do not love to drop the gloves. Guys are not in the dressing room before a game telling their teammates, "I can't wait to get into three fights tonight." It's not something that guys look forward to.

Opponents of fighting believe that the practice is unnecessary and dangerous, especially given the increased awareness of head injuries and player safety across all sports. I feel that the NHL has done a good job over the years, however, of making rule changes and adjustments to cut down on the number of fights, as well as helping to make fighting safer. Examples of wise league regulations include the third-man-in rule, which penalizes a player who gets involved in a fight that is already in progress; the ban on fighting at the end of games when the outcome is already determined; and the mandate that combatants keep their helmets on during a fight. There are fewer line brawls now than when I first came into the league, which I also think is positive. In my opinion, fighting prevents more injuries than it causes. And with the high caliber of officials in the NHL, it very rarely results in significant injuries; the referees step in quickly to help minimize that risk.

The game of hockey is special. Its blend of physical play, intensity and emotion is what makes players such as myself love it. But I think it is important to realize that fighting plays a role in -- and enhances -- all of those aspects. Would hockey still be a good game without fighting? Yes, I think so. But it is great game with it! - With Eric Tosi

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