Steve Yzerman and Fighting In Hockey


Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

You never can dissolve the link between Yzerman and the Red Wings, I don’t care if he starts working for the Avalanche. He’s the only NHL player who’s jersey I own and watching him lead the Wings to a cup in 2002 is what hooked me on Detroit hockey (well the fact that my parents are from Michigan didn’t hurt either). So this gave me  some mixed feelings about his comments two days ago regarding fighting in hockey.

Steve Yzerman, and other GMs have started talking about making the penalty for fighting more severe. According to Puck Daddy, Yzerman, Ray Shero (Penguins GM) and Jim Rutherford (Hurricanes GM) are all interested in the idea of making fighting cost a player a game misconduct rather than a five-minute major. There’s also talk of trying to ban fighting altogether.

It would seem contradictory for Yzerman to suddenly have a change of heart about fighting. He certainly didn’t have a problem with it with Bob Probert and Joe Kocur and later in his career Darren McCarty as enforcers protecting star players like him on his team. He also had no problem re-signing Pierre-Cedric Labrie, who’s stats indicate he isn’t know for much else outside of fighting. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine Ray Shero wanting the rules to be “re-evaluated”, so he can employ more players like Matt Cooke and not have anyone keep them in check. Additionally, he also had no problem having Steve MacIntyre on his roster to protect his stars, so thinking fighting should be out of the game seems like an odd position to take.

Over the past couple days there’s been an awful lot of discussion about the role of fighting in hockey and I have no interest in sparking more debate or adding my two sense. I think there’s been a lot of things missed out on, however. Theres no argument that George Parros getting hurt fighting Colton Orr in that freak accident is awful and any decent human being that saw that was sad to see him injured. However, it’s worth mentioning that without fighting in the NHL, George Parros and Colton Orr would NEVER crack a NHL roster. The same can be said for Mike Brown, Aaron Asham, Brandon Prust, Frazer McLaren, Jared Boll, Krys Bartch, and Detroit’s very own Jordin Tootoo.

I bring this up in relation to another interesting number that’s being thrown around a lot. Last February Hockey Night in Canada teamed up with the NHL to do a poll which 2/3 of the players agreed to participate in. Backhand Shelf had a great write up on this. It asked some fun questions- who’s the fastest skater, who has the best ice, etc. At the very bottom of Backhand Shelf’s summary is a question with a very telling answer- should fighting be banned? 98% said no, 2% said  yes, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to find out the poll has a 2% margin of error.

The players may all have their reasons for not supporting such a ban, and if you’re one of the players on this list above it’s obvious that if you make your living on fighting, you would very much like fighting to remain in the NHL. However, think of these guys’ teammates. How cold would someone have to be to sit in a locker room with Orr, Parros, Tootoo, etc, see him fight and bleed for you and your team, and say ‘no, he doesn’t deserve a NHL job, it should be banned’? Many players probably voted against banning fighting to keep their own jobs, but many more wouldn’t want to see their teammate lose his job either.

Jim Rutherford was also mentioned as a GM speaking about adding a game misconduct to the fighting penalty and he happened to appear on Sportnet’s Hockey Central at Noon, a nice midday podcast I highly recommend if you can tolerate old men bickering about hockey and hold out for some really solid interviews. Should you care to listen to his entire interview, you can find the episode here. Rutherford had a few great quotes about the issue, such as:

"“Harsher penalties make more sense. I don’t think we should automatically eliminate fighting from the game.”“There’s points in our game where sometimes a fight is necessary. With that being said, I think the penalties should be harsher.”“The people the other night that were at the Bell Centre, do you think if they left the game and there wasn’t a fight they’d be saying ‘Geez, I really wish there’d been a fight tonight” ya know? Sure, everybody likes to see a good fight but at the same time I’m not sure that it’s selling tickets.”"

It’s rather telling that a general manager in a non-traditional market isn’t sure what sells tickets…

On a serious note, similar to how invading totalitarian/communist countries and providing instant democracy often has negative consequences, moving hockey immediately from fighting to no fighting would have some negative effects. Don’t forget the role that enforcing plays in hockey, with dirty behavior having a real serious consequence. You’re really going to think twice about hitting this star player or be a lot more careful with your stick knowing theres a guy on the other team that’ll pound your face in should your behavior dictate it.

Should fighting immediately be banned, there’s a real good possibility that plays like Ladislav Smid’s hit on Mark Scheifele on opening night happen a lot more often because there’s less consequence to it. Even though Smid got off relatively light considering the possibilities:

Bad enough to board the guy,  Smid follows up with a stick to the back of Scheifele’s neck. How he didn’t get to have a ‘friendly conversation’ with Mike Brown after that is beyond me.

Rather than go on a monologue about how fighting actually makes hockey safer, let’s consider how fighting would actually get banned, because it seems to be the direction the NHL is headed in for better or for worse. Rather than immediately ban it U.S.-invading-Iraq style, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the NHL declare next year fighting is a ten-minute misconduct. After a few years, an adjustment would be made and the NHL would make fighting result in a game misconduct. Then after a few more years it’s a one-game suspension, and so on and so forth until hockey is out of fighting altogether, Olympics style.

I don’t know if this is what I’d like to see happen, but I do think this is what will end up happening.