Hockey's bid to rein in fisticuffs

The league wants to expand its audience, but fights are a major draw for many hard-core fans.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Scuffle on ice: New Jersey Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador, right, and Florida Panthers center Anthony Stewart fight.
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"Wanna go, pretty boy?"

Snatched from the 1986 hockey flick "Youngblood," the line has become the hockey goon squad's on-ice call to arms, a sure way to get 15,000 fans out of their seats and inject some passion into a listless bench.

"Staged fights" – where two players agree to go at it as soon as play starts – are up by 30 percent in the past year and brawls occur in nearly half of all regular season games. In response, the NHL's brass surprised the hockey world this week by taking bold action to keep the gladiator-like game from eroding into a complete carnival sideshow.

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A proposed new rule would add 10 minutes to the current "five for fighting" penalty for staged fights. In part, it is a response to recent fight-related injuries and tragedies, including the death of a minor league player in January. But it's also emblematic of a league desperately vying for acceptance as a top American sport while holding onto its Canadian blue-collar roots and pugilistic traditions.

"NHL brass want to have it both ways," says Orin Starn, a sports anthropologist at Duke University. The question they're now facing: "Do they want to have this spectacle of goons whaling on each other or do they want to promote hockey through the beauty of the game and the skill it demands?"

All in all, there have been more than 24,000 fights over the history of the league. This year is on track to hit 570 fights, the most in the modern hockey era, and the percentage of games with fights – 43 percent – and number of games with more than one fight – 178 – will both break records if projections hold, according to hockeyfights.com, a fan site that rates fights and posts videos of the skirmishes.

The new rule, if approved by the league's Board of Regents, would leave it to officials to decide whether a fight is staged or not. If successful, it could become part of a series of tweaks that, over time, could reduce the sport's focus on fighting and, perhaps, extend the sport's appeal while retaining hard-core fans. After football and basketball instituted heavy fines for fighting in the 1970s and '80s, hockey remains the only sport with sanctioned fisticuffs. Fighting isn't tolerated in youth, amateur, or Olympic play, but becomes a part of the North American sport starting in the NHL-feeding junior leagues.

The death of Ontario Hockey League player Don Sanderson, who hit his head on the ice during a fight in January, helped spark debate at the league's general managers' "State of the Game" meeting in Naples, Fla., this week.

"Hockey is inherently a dangerous game and fighting is part of hockey and there will be dangers associated with that," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told NHL.com this week. "Having said that, if you can look at the game, keep its basic integrity, and still make it safer for the players, that's something we should always endeavor to do."

The NHL's efforts to promote a family-friendly atmosphere at rinks have been stymied by hockey's reliance on gate receipts over TV revenue. Ticket sales make up 80 percent of the NHL's annual take, and, for many hockey fans, fighting is central to the game. Hockeyfights.com is the most popular fan site on the Web.

A few hours after the GM's meeting in Naples, nine fights broke out on the ice during Tuesday night's games. "American fans have a strong appetite for carnivals and spectacles," says Mr. Starn. But, he says, fighting also limits the sport's appeal, especially for moms with impressionable young boys.

At the same time, the league is far from the Broad Street Bullies-era of the 1970s, where sticks often got involved in the action. A so-called instigator rule increased focus on open-ice play and the surge of largely nonfighting Europeans into the league has diminished the sport's focus on out-and-out brutality. Fights rarely end in serious injuries, or even bruised egos.

Unlike the old days, when the legendary NHL fighter Tony Twist used to joke that he skated so rarely that he could get away with putting a cardboard cutout of himself at the end of the bench, today's focus is increasingly on smaller, more skilled "agitators" who try to get under the skin of those on the opposite bench.

Still, every NHL team has a so-called enforcer whose main role is to make the opposition think twice about messing with star players like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin. In that way, many players argue, fighting protects the game. "I fight because it's my job, not because I like it," the league's biggest heavyweight, George Laraque, writes on his blog. "How many fighters like fighting anyway?"

Players abide by an unwritten rule to stand up for their teammates, says Ross Bernstein, author of a book on hockey culture called "The Code." The basic premise of the sport – large men competing at 30 miles per hour in an enclosed arena while carrying big sticks – fuels that code.

Fans like Mr. Bernstein see a big difference between "thug-on-thug" fighting, sometimes used by the minor leagues to spur ticket sales, and fights that break out in the heat of the moment. "The league is taking steps to legislate out the traditional goon," he says, "But fighting is part of the game, there's honor and courage behind it."

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