x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Puck must come before the punch

The NHL's 30 general managers gathered in Florida last week for golf, good times and a semi-annual gab session.

The NHL's 30 general managers gathered in Florida last week for golf, good times and a semi-annual gab session. By all accounts, the golf was great and the good times even better. The gab session? Well, they are still debating how that turned out. The topics that dominated the discussion included fighting and checks to the head - a pair of troubling safety issues that the league never have been able to reconcile. The NHL have long been hockey-on-the-edge and teams thrive through intimidation, physicality and walking the fine line between courage and carnage. With coaches pushing players to the limit, an arena full of fans screaming for blood and "depth" players ready to do whatever it takes to hold onto their jobs, the recipe for recklessness is set.

In the end, the league's GMs recommended a clampdown on "staged" fights - those bouts that occur just after a face-off, usually between each team's hired goon - with an automatic 10-minute misconduct. (Any proposals still must be approved by the league's competition committee and the NHL board of governors). As well, the GMs encouraged the refs to call the two-minute instigator penalty more often, especially for fights that start after a player takes umbrage with a good, clean bodycheck. Hitting is part of hockey, and a player's first reaction should not be to fight it if he gets caught by a clean hit. Just stand up, brush yourself off and get back in the game.

One problem is, hockey's enforcers are a surprisingly intelligent bunch - they will figure out that all they have to do is skate around for 15 seconds after the face-off. The real problem, of course, is the league have no idea what to do about fighting. Nobody really does. It's been part of the professional game for more than a century - and it does serve a purpose of self-policing among the players - but the optics when an NHL hockey fight goes bad are devastating to the league (not to mention the poor fella who gets the worst of it). Today's NHL enforcers, like Derek Boogaard in Minnesota and Jody Shelley in San Jose, are monsters; huge, giant, muscle-bound men with lethal punching power.

When the inevitable day arrives, when an NHLer dies after a fight - players hitting their heads on the ice seems to be happening more and more often - well, what do the league do then? How do you right that wrong? You can't, of course, so it's all about preventing such a tragedy from occurring. But abstinence isn't always realistic, as so many high schools have discovered, so what's the next best thing?

The next best thing is a fight that arises from something that happens in the game between two players who deserve to be in the league because of their skills with the puck, not with the punch. If guys like Jarome Iginla and Vincent Lecavalier, two of the league's best players who dropped the gloves in the 2004 Stanley Cup final, decide to settle things the Old West way, then it's a tough sell to anybody to try to take that intensity and passion out of the game. That was a good, honest fight between two captains at the most exciting time of the year, with a championship on the line. Every player on both benches, not to mention every fan in the house, felt that fight in their bones.

That kind of fight, a legitimate and spontaneous fight that springs from perhaps an over-aggressive puck battle along the boards, between two players who boast an array of true hockey talents - that's the kind of bout the NHL want to retain. But when it is between two guys who have scored one goal combined in three seasons, it is the kind of bad math that hurts the league. @Email:smccaig@thenational.ae