ERIC DUHATSCHEK

Getting rid of hockey's goons

The Globe and Mail

Detroit Red Wings' Stu Grimson (32) struggles with Toronto Maple Leafs' Tie Domi during a first period fight at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit on Thursday, Feb. 22, 1996. (AP Photo/Tom Pidgeon) (Tom Pidgeon/AP)

About the most sensible thing ever said about fighting – and its place in the NHL, past, present and future – came from former Boston Bruins general manager Harry Sinden almost two decades ago.

Responding to the widely held canard that fighting always was and is an integral part of the game, Sinden noted that the soldiers who invented the game by playing hockey on the frozen St. Lawrence River in the 19th century didn’t go onto the ice with the intention of starting a fight. Fighting gradually crept into the game, an unhappy part of its evolution, and according to Sinden, it can evolve right out again.

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“If the wise men of today sat down and started a brand new hockey league, they wouldn’t include fighting,” Sinden said in an interview Friday. “They wouldn’t start off by saying, ‘Let’s let everybody fight and just give them a five-minute major.’ It wouldn’t fit today.

“How you ever get it out entirely, I don’t know, but they have opportunities to adjust things so these goons – and people who are only in the game to fight – could be limited and slowed down. That they could do.”

Fighting is a hot topic again these days because three players who did a lot of it during their NHL careers – Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak – all died this summer. The assumption is that their involvement in the NHL’s “staged fight” sideshow contributed to their deaths in some manner, because of the pressure associated with playing that role.

Suspending players involved in multiple fights would be one way of eliminating the enforcer role, according to Sinden, who says: “If a guy goes out and every time the puck’s dropped and a fight starts, with him in it, we should have some way where we can stop that. Fighting, in my opinion, is generally a waste of time. But it’s very, very much a part of the fan’s experience because we make it so. We build these guys up. We tell them, that’s one of the reasons to go to a hockey game.”

Once upon a time, Wayne Gretzky opposed fighting in hockey as passionately as Sinden, suggesting soon after he arrived in Los Angeles that hockey would never be a mainstream sport as long as fighting was condoned the way it was. Ultimately, as Gretzky’s voice was ignored for years and years, he stopped contributing to the conversation. People can only be shouted down for so long before they figure it’s somebody else’s turn to carry the torch.

Sinden pointed out that the best moments in hockey tend to be fight-free anyway.

“We don’t have it in the Stanley Cup playoffs, which are a fantastic series of games,” he said. “Do we need it to help the regular season survive, because they’re certainly not always a series of great games? I don’t know. But I’ve watched for a number of years where there hasn’t been any fighting to speak of in the Stanley Cup playoffs and I don’t think I’ve missed it.”

Happily, there is an easy fix, one that the anti-fighting crowd has been pushing for years. Don’t ban fighting per se. Just penalize it in a meaningful way, the same way they do in the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball. Fight and you’re out of the game for that night.

For the hawks, the primary concern would be what happens if a two-minutes-per-night goon picks a fight with, say, the Calgary Flames’ star player (and occasionally willing pugilist), Jarome Iginla? If Iginla fights a fringe opponent and both get tossed, well, advantage to the opposing team. Not fair. And yet, if you made staged fights a thing of the past by ejecting someone who fights, teams would eventually stop employing two-minutes-per-night goons because they would be unnecessary and eventually obsolete.

So you’d be left with a tolerable, first-step compromise – the end of the staged fight, mixed in with the occasional spontaneous fight, which you see in the NFL, NBA and baseball too. While that might not be a perfect solution, it is better than staying with the tired status quo, where the fighters traditionally put on a good public front and then are privately left to deal with their own personal demons.

It makes you wonder: If the NHL had worked harder to eliminate fighting two decades ago, would the culture have changed enough to prevent the loss of a trio of lives this summer? Sadly, that is a question that we’ll never truly or definitively get the answer to.