Despite Rules to Cut Down Brawls, Flying Fists Continue

You are watching the 11 o'clock news, and the hockey story leads off with some video of two players acting more like boxers on skates. The referees seem to be watching as the players yank at each other's shirts and throw bare-knuckled roundhouses. And the giddy sportscaster shows the fight in slow motion a second time.

Sound familiar? It seems as if there is a lot of fighting in hockey.

But Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the National Hockey League, says fighting is declining in the sport. Over the last several years, the NHL has instituted new rules to try to cut down on the brawls. "We don't average a fight a game," he says.

Mr. Bettman, however, makes no apologies for the flying fists. He maintains it is a natural outgrowth of a fast-paced "ultimate" contact sport. The nonstop action raises the emotional level of the game. As the tensions rise, he says, fighting sometimes erupts.

The volcanic-like episodes, he claims, are better than some other forms of the game where there is no fighting, such as college or European hockey. "There is a lot nastier stick work and other means of retaliation," he says. Players slash each other across the back of the legs, for example, as a form of retaliation.

Instead, Bettman sees the fighting as a way for players to blow off steam or protect their stars from the bullies who are hired to harass the stick handlers. "It's a way to make sure the game as it's played is physically honest," he says.

Why don't the officials break up the fights sooner? Bettman says it's mainly a matter of safety - their own safety. They prefer to step in between the players once the brawlers are in a clinch or have tired from throwing punches. "Otherwise, we'd be replacing linesmen at the rate of one or more a week."

If hockey were to end the fighting, Bettman says, it would not result in more fans. "No one has ever gotten up and left an arena because of a fight," he claims, adding, "They are really small incidents in a 60-minute game."

And the media blows the incidents out of proportion, making it appear that the sport is a brawl-a-minute. "There is a disproportionate emphasis by the media on how much fighting took place relative to what actually went on," he says.

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