Strange as it may seem nowadays, there was a prevailing school of thought some 30 years ago that suggested NHL players didn't or wouldn't get hurt in a fight. The theory went something like this – two heavily padded men exchanging blows, on skates, couldn't get the sort of leverage out of their legs that, say boxers did when they threw punches – and all of the power behind the punches comes from the legs, firmly planted, on the canvas.
That was the thinking and it permitted the NHL to fool itself into treating spontaneous and/or staged fighting as part of the game – an entertaining sideline that would lure the boxing crowd through the turnstiles. It gave the NHL a chance to impose a laughably nominal penalty for fighting – five minutes per combatant – that really penalized no one at all. If a fighter wasn't sitting in the penalty box, he was usually parked at the end of the bench anyway. So really what's the difference where he's sitting when he's not playing?
Of course, few believe that thinly reasoned argument anymore. Nowadays, players get hurt all the time in fights. Across the board, they are bigger, stronger and fitter than their contemporaries from a generation or two ago. But more importantly, NHL players – whose primary role is to fight – also train for their specialty in the same way in which scorers learn to score and defenders learn to defend. They are experts at their craft and they can inflict real damage, even balanced on skates.
The latest example of a staged fight gone awry occurred early in Toronto Maple Leafs-Ottawa Senators game Wednesday night, when the Leafs' Frazier McLaren laid a beating on the Sens' Dave Dziurzynski. It was not pretty. McLaren, at 6-5, 230 pounds, had a slight physical advantage over Dziurzynski at 6-3, 214, and pounded his opponent into the ice.
It had little to do with hockey, it left Dziurzynski concussed and it re-emphasized a point that needs to be made again and again presumably, as long as the NHL tacitly condones fighting by not ejecting players who fight from the game.
If the NHL truly cares about limiting the effects of concussions in the game, the first and easiest step to keep the numbers down would be to ban fighting from the game.
Last night's fight reminded me of one I saw early in my writing career between Stu Grimson, then a member of the Calgary Flames, and Dave Brown, then with the Edmonton Oilers. Grimson was new to the league then, Brown one of its most feared enforcers. It was still the heyday of the Battle of Alberta and Grimson fought Brown once and did OK – that is to say, he survived without getting hurt. The fight was mostly a draw, but Grimson received a lot of plaudits for doing as well as he did.
The second time they fought it was a different story, a mismatch of the first order. Brown pounded the living daylights out of Grimson, who suffered a fractured orbital bone on the play. It was a terrible thing to watch and I remember wondering at the time if that would be last we ever saw of Grimson aka The Grim Reaper. It wasn't, of course.
He recovered and went on to play 14 seasons in the NHL for eight teams. He amassed 2,113 penalty minutes in the 729 games he played. He was one of the smartest players I've ever run across. I sat beside him once on a flight and he was studying a law text. He was thoughtful and well-read and knew exactly what he was doing – realizing his dream of playing in the NHL the only way he could, by acting as an enforcer for a team. Grimson's cognitive faculties survived his NHL career and he eventually passed the bar, practiced law for a time (he calls himself a "recovering lawyer" on Twitter @asgrimson) and now is back in the business, doing some radio work in Nashville.
Back in September, Grimson posted his view of the pros and cons of fighting, based on a rule change in the Ontario Hockey League in which a player would receive a two-game suspension once he had accumulated 10 fights or more in a season. Grimson framed his argument from the perspective of someone who fought his way up through the ranks and then had his NHL career end because of a concussion sustained in a fight. Even after all that, Grimson believes fighting should stay in the game.
Grimson began by noting "on the front end that there are reasonable arguments on both sides of this issue. First, those that favor eliminating fighting from the game would cite player safety as the reason. No argument here. Ban fighting and you abolish one area where concussions occur on a fairly frequent basis. After all, reducing blows to the head is the primary justification for implementing a rule change in this area. The studies show, however, that concussions occur more frequently during the normal course of play rather than during a fight."
But he also believes that: "There are valid reasons to leave this aspect of the game as is. First, the presence of an enforcer keeps the other team honest. The opposition doesn't take liberties with your team when you have an enforcer in the lineup. And if the ultimate goal is to reduce trauma to the head, this is one tool in a basket of tools that the NHL has at its disposal. The enforcer acts as a deterrent.
"My experience has taught me that if you don't have an enforcer in your lineup the other team will play you differently. And by "differently" I mean they may try to run you out of the building.
"Second, the fighter drops his gloves with his eyes wide open. Today, more than ever, players understand the risks involved when they engage another player in a fight. In the law, players are said to have assumed the risk. And let's face it; we live in a society where we are free to make our own choices – even when those choices pose a risk to our health. If we eliminate fighting for that reason, we are starting down a path to abolish any sport/activity where a risk of injury exists."
It is an argument in defence of fighting that I've heard within the last two weeks from both Ian Laperriere (now retired, after multiple concussions) and just yesterday, from the Phoenix Coyotes' Twitter king, Paul Bissonette. Paraphrasing a little here, but both said that there are risks inherent in the sport that the players who play them are willing to assume to reap the benefits of being a professional athlete. I get that. Bissonette is in the NHL because of his willingness to scrap. Laperriere mentioned that he'd had 25 fights in his final year and they were all for the right reasons, namely coming to a teammate's defence. None of these guys are lunkheads by the way. They've come to their conclusions by coolly weighing risk against reward.
It makes you realize that there will always be another willing combatant to step up if Dziurzynski can't or won't fight again. Asking fighters to determine the future of fighting is not the way to go – because if we leave it up to the individual, there will always another player, ready and willing to fight his way into the NHL. Instead of waffling, NHL leadership needs to show a willingness to finally take a stand, penalize fighting by ejecting combatants from the game, and by doing so, better protecting the players from themselves.
In this day and age, it shouldn't be that hard a call.