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Fight Night in Canada’s long run continues unabated

Never seen that before.

In years and years of picking up the game sheet – scores, shots, ice time, penalties, etc. – never seen a staple. But last Sunday night, the summary was two pages long.

And even then told only a small part of the story.

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The Montreal Canadiens took 30 penalties worth 129 minutes, Ottawa Senators 23 penalties for 107 minutes – making a grand total of 236 minutes of bad. Four minutes short of four hours, in a game that, mercifully, lasted only 60 minutes.

And yet they said there was no natural rivalry between Ottawa and Montreal. … Just have a look at one of the local newspapers in January of 1907, when Ottawa and Montreal clashed in "the most sordid exhibition of butchery ever seen in hockey."

The Senators' Smith Brothers, Alf and Harry, waded into the Wanderers lineup sticks high and swinging, sending Montreal's Hod Stuart and Thomas (Moose) Johnson off to the hospital and the Smiths off to real jail.

The league met, discussed the "sordid exhibition" and, of course, did absolutely nothing.

Same thing this week, 106 years later.

Clarence Campbell, who was president of the NHL long before anyone had ever heard of Gary Bettman, once told a rapt audience: "Hockey is a game of violence. This will never change."

And so it has always seemed.

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You had New York Americans owner George (Tex) Rickard renting ambulances to park outside Madison Square Garden in the 1930s because he believed it brought in fans. You had Conn Smythe talking about violence in the 1950s and '60s, when he said: "We've got to stamp out this sort of thing or people are going to keep on buying tickets."

You had the Broad Street Bullies winning Stanley Cups for Philadelphia in the 1970s, as much with their fists as their sticks.

And you had Harold Ballard, then-owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, saying the only way to counter the Flyers was to sign "guys you toss raw meat to and they go wild."

Campbell did add the key to the NHL's success was to "control the level of violence at an acceptable level" – though no one, not even the justice system, has ever been able to define precisely what is "acceptable."

There have been attempts, though.

At one famous meeting of the NHL Players' Association in the 1970s, the players even voted on suggesting a one-year ban on fighting just to see what effect it might have, only to have the owners show not the slightest interest in such an initiative.

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When Bruce McNall and Bettman ushered in the era of the New NHL 20 years ago, there was a great deal of discussion.

Harry Sinden, head of the "Big, Bad Bruins" proposed a full ban on fights in the hopes of expanding the game to new markets.

"The fact is," Sinden said at the time, "a lot of people find fighting distasteful. So, does it make sense to try to win fans that way? Look, I've always had a hard-hitting, physical team. That will never change. That's how we built our franchise and I'll always love hard-hitting, physical hockey. But I hate goons and I hate goon tactics."

Two decades later, there are still goons and, last Sunday at Scotiabank Place, 14 fighting penalties.

If there were any among the 20,249 in attendance who did not like what they witnessed, their protests did not make a peep against the wild cheering and delight that greeted each bout.

Nor did the players seem much turned off.

"It was a really fun game," said Ottawa forward Kyle Turris, who didn't really appear to be having the time of his life as he was being pummelled late in the game by a much-larger P.K. Subban.

Subban, like most of the players interviewed at the Monday skates, claimed to have suffered a senior's moment immediately following the match. And him only 23.

"I don't remember, to be honest with you," he claimed. But so, too, did all other players who professed not to recall the various cheap shots, cross-checks, slashes, challenges and dropped gloves.

"He's extremely emotional," Turris said of his Montreal opponent.

So, too, is Montreal's head coach, Michel Therrien, who sometimes gives off the impression he is about to prove spontaneous human combustion.

"Emotions got the best of us at times," said Montreal forward Colby Armstrong, who picked up a fighting major and a game misconduct.

Jim Peplinski understands that. Peplinski was co-captain of the Calgary Flames when they met the Montreal Canadiens in the 1986 final and well remembers the bench-clearing brawl at the end of Game 4 that included even the back-up goaltenders.

Peplinski's views on hockey have evolved over the years to a point where, today, he argues in favour of bodychecking being eliminated at the lower levels and believes "staged fights" should be outright banned.

"Fighting has no value to the game today," he said.

But playoffs, he says, can be different. Fighting is extremely rare in important games such as the playoffs and Olympics, but they do sometimes happen, and they usually do so, Peplinski says, at the end of "a chain of events" that can include frustration with the officiating, high emotions and, at times, a feeling of being humiliated. All came into play for the Montreal Canadiens last Sunday in Ottawa.

The one positive that can come out of such an explosion, the successful Calgary businessman said, is: "Most times after that, the next games are better."

One can only hope so.

Oh, did I mention Ottawa won, 6-1?

I found the score, eventually, buried somewhere in the two-page game summary.


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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More


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