It appears the nation is keen to clean up the national game.
A new Exhibit No. 1 in the court of public opinion was on gut-wrenching display Wednesday night at Toronto's Air Canada Centre, when Maple Leafs forward Frazer McLaren knocked out Ottawa Senators rookie Dave Dziurzynski with a single punch to the head.
Rarely has a player worn such an unfortunate nickname – "Call me Dizzy," Dziurzynski recently told reporters who were tying their fingers in knots trying to type his name – as the 23-year-old forward suffered a concussion in the fight that took place barely 26 seconds into the game.
"It doesn't appear to have been provoked at all," says former Ontario attorney-general Roy McMurtry, who fought, and mostly lost, a high-profile legal battle against NHL violence in the 1970s.
"It's just plain thuggery."
It's also a farce. The staged fight is the cartoon of professional hockey – "entertainment" apart from the main attraction – but it is increasingly seen as not funny at all. Particularly when players are injured.
This was the classic staged fight, all but guaranteed the moment the two coaches filled out their lineups and threw out players who should count themselves fortunate to see a few minutes of ice time on a fourth line.
There was a fight, but no punishment for stopping the game so abruptly and unnecessarily. Both players were given majors – let's not call them penalties – and sent off (Dziurzynski was helped off once he regained consciousness). The teams then resumed play with five skaters a side.
McLaren, with his fifth fight of the shrunken season, will now be able to table his treasured major just as superior players will table their goals and assists come contract time. In the NHL, after all, you are rewarded, not penalized, for fighting.
It is perhaps the greatest absurdity in all of team sports. And, it appears, people are finally starting to see it as such.
"Staged fights, and indeed all fights in hockey should be banned, as they are in many great sports such as soccer," says Dr. Charles Tator, founder of ThinkFirst Canada and project director of the Canadian Sports Concussion Project at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre at Toronto Western Hospital.
"We would have a safer game if we banned fighting."
Nearly 40 years after McMurtry and his brother Bill tried to get gratuitous and unnecessary violence out of the game, a new survey contends that Canadians are sick of such thuggery.
Angus Reid Public Opinion recently surveyed the population at large, as well as a specific sample of self-described hockey fans, on a number of issues from when to introduce bodychecking to what should be done about fisticuffs in the game.
This week, The Globe and Mail reported on the first part of the survey – a vast majority of Canadians want bodychecking out of peewee hockey – and today the results are in on the public attitude toward fighting:
Three-quarters of Canadians (78 per cent) – and an identical percentage of fans of the game – want to see fights banned in all junior hockey;
Two-thirds of Canadians – fans as well as the general public – believe fighting should also be banned at the professional level;
Only 16 per cent of the country favours allowing fights at the junior levels;
One-quarter of Canadians (27 per cent) oppose eliminating fights at the professional level, while 5 per cent aren't sure what to do;
While 95 per cent of fans believe skating is an "essential component" of the game, and 93 per cent believe shooting is important, a minuscule 7 per cent say the ability to engage in on-ice fights is important.
In other words, hockey's cartoon can go.
The online survey was conducted between Feb. 22 and 26. It involved 1,013 Canadian adults who are Angus Reid Forum panelists and an additional smaller sample of 502 self-described hockey fans. According to the pollster, the margin of error in such a survey would be plus or minus 3.1 per cent from the larger sample of Canadian adults, and plus or minus 4.5 per cent for the smaller sample.
Respondents were asked if they would support a system in place in college and university hockey, where rules call for automatic ejection and suspension for those players engaging in fisticuffs.
By large majorities, they agreed there should be rules to bring an end, as much as possible, to fighting in hockey.
The survey did not break down fights into those that occur in the heat of the moment and those that occur for no comprehensible reason, as was the case when Dziurzynski and McLaren decided to hammer each other before the game had taken a second breath.
So while McLaren has another "major" to take to the bargaining table, Dziurzynski carries with him a history of concussion as he tries to establish what has already been a most unlikely hockey career.
The 23-year-old rookie from Lloydminster, Alta., came to the NHL only because the Senators have been so gutted by injury the team has had to reach far down into its minor-league system.
Dziurzynski did not play major junior hockey and was never drafted. His size – 6 foot 3, 204 pounds – and willingness to do whatever it takes made him an attractive quantity. He at times has appeared to be a late bloomer as far as ability and skills are concerned, but his main qualities remain size and toughness.
When the taller and larger McLaren asked right off the opening faceoff if Dziurzynski wanted to fight – McLaren has admitted he was trying to "spark" his team to a strong early start – the Ottawa rookie initially said no, but then went ahead and fought anyway.
If he was going to stick, he would have to prove himself.
But what he also proved is that, when it comes to fighting in hockey, we are getting a bit dizzy and nauseous.