NHL fighting is back with a vengeance
By Kevin Allen, USA TODAY
As the NHL prepares to look into the "rules of engagement" for fighting, more players are engaging in fights.
Fighting majors are up about 24% from the same point in 2007-08 and are on pace to approach numbers seen before the canceled 2004-05 season.
"The contact part of our game is on the ascendency, so I'm not surprised fighting is up," said Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke. "I don't think it's going to go any higher. We want physical hockey back, but no one wants to go back to the 1970s and three-hour games."
TALE OF THE TAPE: 2007-08 vs. 2008-09
The number of fighting majors fell to 919 in 2005-06 after the NHL implemented rules changes to open up the offense. Less than two-thirds into this season, there have been 997.
"When we came back from the lockout, there was a camaraderie among players, and since then fighting has gradually increased," said Colin Campbell, the NHL's director of hockey operations.
Despite the rise, the 1.3 fighting majors a game this season are 38% below the record of 2.1, set in 1986-87.
Still, numbers are up across the board: 25 players have 10 or more fights — led by the Columbus Blue Jackets' Jared Boll and Philadelphia Flyers' Riley Cote (17 each) — up from 12 at this point in 2007-08.
"Fighting is up because parity is so strong," said NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, a former NHL coach.
Also contributing to the rise is a change in the way players react to hits.
"As soon as you have a hit now, with it is legal or illegal, there seems to be immediate retribution upon the player who delivers the hit," said Campbell.
Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz also believes that the "honor code has grayed a little bit."
"The response after a clean hit is overexaggerated in the league right now," Trotz said. "What we used to think of as a clean hit, where players would play on, now is overblown. If it has any force to it guys overreact."
This is a change from yesteryear when clean bodychecks were accepted more by opposing players.
"I think some of this comes people people talking about hits from behind, or head hits, and asking, 'Where is the respect?' " Campbell said, noting that he believes the NHL has actually done a good job of reducing those kind of hits.
Flyers forward Jeff Carter said he doesn't notice any difference in fighting.
"I think it's just the way the game is," Carter said. "I think it's intense, tight games this year. I think a lot of teams are real close to each other in the standings."
The theory is that competitive races — six points separate fifth through 13th place in the West — create more tension.
"That kind of bunching leads to more punching," said Versus analyst Daren Eliot
Another reason why fighting might be up is what Eliot calls "the Brian Burke effect."
In 2007, the Anaheim Ducks, with Burke in command, won the Stanley Cup with a big, physical team that hit hard and fought frequently.
"Every year, everyone points to why the Stanley Cup champion won," Campbell said. "Teams that they ran over on the way to winning said, 'Not again.' I think some teams did load up after that. That's a normal pattern. Some teams just look at their rivals."
Pedators forward Jordin Tootoo, currently sidelined after suffering a hand injury in a fight with Calgary's Todd Bertuzzi, said the elimination of the NHL "goon" has also contributed to the increased number of fights.
"The game has changed so now you see more fighting from various guys," Tootoo said. "Now when you are out on the ice, there are four other guys who will step up for you. We're like brothers. Everyone is here for each other."
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, responding to incidents in lower leagues, has said general managers will look at all aspects of fighting at their annual meeting March 9-11 in Naples, Fla.
Don Sanderson, 21, of the Whitby Dunlops died in an Ontario senior league game after his head hit the ice during a fight. Last month, Flyers farmhand Garrett Klotz suffered a seizure during a fight.
Bettman said, though, he didn't think there was any appetite for abolishing fighting.
Burke is a proponent of keeping fighting an integral part of the sport because he believes fighters police the game. He recently added tough guy Brad May in Toronto.
"The abuse our skill guys take here in Toronto is nothing short of embarrassing," Burke said.