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Duhatschek: Debate over hockey fighting rages on

The fight over fighting in the NHL never seems to go away and Tuesday, when league general managers hold their semi-annual meeting in Toronto, they will discuss it again.

It almost always takes a tipping point for the NHL to consider any major rule change – and the tipping point on fighting could have been reached the week before last, when Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ray Emery chased down Washington Capitals counterpart Braden Holtby to engage him in fisticuffs. It is a matchup that would never be sanctioned in an actual boxing venue because Emery knows what he's doing, Holtby doesn't, plus the size discrepancy and differences in their respective weight classes.

What happened was closer to assault than the boys-will-be-boys argument that permits the pro-fighting crowd to explain away the incident in a la-di-da way.

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No supplementary discipline was contemplated because, according to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, there was no particular rule that was contravened. Bettman then volleyed the discussion over to the GMs, who essentially are the gatekeepers for rule changes, and dropped it in their laps.

GMs have been divided into hawks and doves for a while on this topic, and the fact that some – such as Steve Yzerman of the Tampa Bay Lightning – have spoken out about the blemish that fighting inflicts on the game makes you think something could get done eventually.

But it likely isn't going to happen any time soon.

For one thing, fighting – and especially what to do about goaltenders that fight – is just one topic on a lengthy agenda that will also include a thorough review of hybrid icing and what may be needed to tweak it six weeks into the 2013-14 season.

For another, GMs usually use their November meeting to establish a longer to-do list they then address at longer, in-depth meetings in March.

Speaking Monday in Toronto at the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference, Bettman stayed mostly on message when it came to his views on fighting, noting it acts as a safety valve to cool things off in the heat of the moment.

However, he also acknowledged he spoke to Emery recently – when the Chicago Blackhawks visited the White House – and asked him, hypothetically, if there had been a 10-game suspension in place for leaving the crease to join a fight, would he have acted the way he did?

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The answer, according to The Canadian Press, was: "What? Are you crazy?"

Currently, NHL players receive automatic 10-game suspensions for leaving the bench to join a fight, so it is not unreasonable to think the league could introduce a similar penalty for goalies leaving a crease to join a fight.

Recently, Calgary Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke wrote a column for USA Today, defending the role of fighting in the NHL, using a rationale similar to Bettman's.

This is the current consensus on fighting and, according to Bettman, if they want to change the rules, they need to arrive at a new consensus.

Further complicating matters is even if GMs wanted to introduce stiffer penalties, they would need to vet those changes through the NHL Players' Association. The last time the NHLPA surveyed its membership about the fighting issue, there was an overwhelming support for the status quo.

"We probably wouldn't even be having the fighting discussion right now if there wasn't a freak play with [Montreal Canadiens enforcer] George Parros losing his balance and falling [during the first game of the season]," Bettman said. "Like the Emery-Holtby incident, those things don't define the season we're having. They're important, we look at them, we discuss them, but they get more attention than they probably warrant in any particular case because we're constantly monitoring the game."

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With files from The Canadian Press

Follow me on Twitter: @eduhatschek

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More


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