As we enter the final two weeks of the NHL's regular season, and as playoff positioning appears to be becoming clearer with each passing day, perhaps for a minute we could break, and take a look toward next year.
One of the hot button debates around the NHL, whether amongst GM's, owners, league officials, the Commissioner or the fans, is the issue of fighting in the NHL. Some feel that the fighting in the NHL is an unnecessary element, others say the sport would not be the same without the scraps. While there are many legitimate reasons against fighting, or for harsher penalties and such, there are also convincing reasons to keep it in the game. Many complain that the violence and particularly the fighting, turns many potential fans of the sport away. However, the fans that the fighting has attracted to the sport should also be considered. The sport itself is a violent game, high paced, high intensity, hard hitting action, like no other sport played. Some argue that the occasional fight amongst opposing goons is a way of keeping the game civil, and allowing teams to vent pent up intensity. It has been argued that if the staged fighting between two men, in a way protected by the officials who jump in shortly after each get a few jabs in was not available, fans would resort to their sticks being the peacemaker. While a far more lethal and dangerous thought, its hard to say if this would in fact be the case.
When uninterupted, hockey can be one of the most beautiful and artful sports in existence, there is no question about that. The fast skating, tape to tape passing, fancy stickwork, and finesse is a beautiful thing. A large portion of the game's fans stem from an appreciation of this facet of the sport. While others like the physicality, I say the beauty lies in the hybridity of the two. The high skill coupled with the high intensity, and believe like many that there is room for both. What the NHL has decided to do, going forward for next season, is to put an end to "staged fights." This would be something like having each teams designated fighter drop their gloves immediately after the puck drop of the faceoff for a "main event" style fight at center ice. The NHL sees this as an artificial, theatrical aspect of the game that is dangerous to player health and to the game's public image. As much as I love to see it, especially when facing a rival, I think I agree with them. Both from a safety standpoint and a public relations standpoint, it's probably good business by the NHL. However, fighting followed by a five minute major the way we see it today will still exist. While the NHL will not tollerate a "staged fight," they will allow a fight that breaks out as a result of a hard hit, or more, "heat of the battle" or "act of passion" variety.
While this sounds good in theory, I think all it means is that the goons will be even more theatrical, and will still find a way to fight under the new rules. One thing hockey is full of is rivalries, and the Atlantic Division has some of the most fiercest in sports. Rangers/Islanders, Rangers/Devils and Rangers/Flyers are all ugly games and great to watch. As of late Rangers/Penguins have also begun to develop a rivalry. The close proximity of the teams and the natural rivalries of the cities (New York and Philadelphia for one) all help to contribute to the intensity and the break out of near brawls.
Right now, bloggers covering the NHL and the 30 NHL teams are all voicing their opinion on the matter as we await the playoffs. A playoff year that I assume with be doubly fight filled as the goons of the game get their fill for perhaps the last time as they once knew it.