Just Checking | Left Field | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Just Checking

Don't turn back the clock on hockey's progress

I admit it: Hockey fighting appeals to my primal side. But because the violence was always presented as an indicator of toughness, I thought of it as a harmless part of the game. Now I think it's obsolete.

It's one thing to applaud grit and toughness, but at some point you have to wonder: How much is it worth? I've seen more than a few players lying lifeless on the ice. What happens when somebody takes an unnecessary header like that? Pittsburgh fans are all too familiar with the dangers of repeated head traumas: Such injuries contributed to the tragic death of Steelers legend Mike Webster.

Despite the NHL's post-strike efforts to put its best skate forward, a Neanderthal element remains resistant to change, especially change that limits hockey fights.

The Stone Age contingent is led by Anaheim Ducks general manager Brian Burke, who last week recommended changing the punishment for players who blatantly start fights. Burke wants players to receive a two-game suspension if they rack up five instigator penalties. Currently, a player is suspended after only three such penalties.

What makes Burke's push strange is that cracking down on fighting doesn't just improve player safety: It improves the financial future of the NHL.

The instigator rule -- along with other forward-looking changes made following the calamitous 2004-05 hockey strike -- has encouraged more wide-open offense, and a game tempo unfettered by hockey's ubiquitous goons. Why turn back now?

Clutching and grabbing, cheap shots and instigating fights ... these are the refuge of teams that simply aren't very good. They cannot compete on speed, skill and smarts, so they seek to slow down or intimidate the league's best players. And, sadly, sometimes it works.

Despite execrable offensive production and a style that's more suited to the Ultimate Fighting Competition, the Ducks sit in second place in the Western Conference, behind the Nashville Predators. Meanwhile, according to The New York Times, the Ducks lead the entire league in fighting and penalty minutes.

Did I mention Burke is Anaheim's GM?

The league should put new emphasis on enforcing penalties for hooking, interference and obstruction. Calling those penalties mitigates the impact of marginally talented hockey apes. It's not a perfect system, but it is better. And safer. So rather than allow for more opportunities to instigate on-ice violence, the league should continue looking to open the game up.

If owners are stupid enough to crave the old ways, they should compare gate receipts. Just look at the top two teams in the Atlantic Division.

The New Jersey Devils play a brand of hockey so stultifying, so deadly boring, you want to gouge your eyes out and overdose on Xanax. They rank 26th in the league in goals scored per game. Their defensemen, if they could, would sit behind the goalie cage with the puck for 58 out of 60 minutes a game.

You'd figure a team in first place in its division -- not to mention the amazing Marty Broudeur in net and a shot at the Cup -- would pack the fans in. But not so much. The Devils rank in the league's bottom five in attendance, likely because of their style of play.

Conversely, the Penguins are playing to full igloos -- not just because they're winning, but also because they are fun and exciting to watch. Players like Sidney Crosby are drawing new fans to the sport.

Grit and toughness are keys to the sport. Nobody wants to eliminate clean-but-vicious hits along the boards, or bumping and jockeying for position. In fact, Pens coach Michel Therrien should demote Michel Ouellet because he's weak with the puck and gets knocked off his line too easily. When challenged, he backs away from the puck like it had a venereal disease.

Still, it would be a step back to allow the game's talentless goons to be a determining force just because it's old-time hockey. It would also be a step in the wrong direction financially.

Maybe it'll take a serious injury to a player of Crosby's stature before guys like Burke drop the notion that fighting makes hockey the sport of tough guys. They already are tough. Beating on somebody at center ice won't make me respect Crosby more than I already do.

Comments (0)

Add a comment