Violence For The Sake Of Safety

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - February 16, 2011
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Boston Bruins players check on concussed teammate Marc Savard

Perhaps it’s time for the NHL to drop the gloves - that is, to once again allow fighting to become an integral part of the game.

The move to evolve the game from its original roots and bring it into the mainstream of American sports has failed as players are finding new and more dangerous ways to exact revenge on opponents.

At one time payback was swift. If someone had taken a cheap shot, or was perceived to have done so, the matter was settled face to face on the ice. Referees stood back, punches were thrown, a bit of bloodshed and the game went on minus the combatants for a few minutes.

Now, a shot to the jaw has been replaced by a knee to a knee or an elbow to the head, which has left some of the game’s most talented players with torn knees, severe concussions and careers in jeopardy.

Sidney Crosby took a shot to the head during the Winter Classic and four days later against Tampa, and he hasn’t played since Jan. 5. Washington Senators’ star Alexander Ovechkin was added to the list of broken players after getting hit by Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke. Cooke also took out Boston forward Marc Savard with a cheap shot that resulted in a season-ending concussion. Some would argue Ovechkin’s injury was a simple act of karmic retribution against the Russian, who even had the audacity to take out good friend Sergei Gonchar and many others with a similar move.

While the natural forces that balance justice and had guided Earl Hickey’s road to redemption may have been at work, the league is without one of its premier talents.

And don’t forget Raymond Sawada, who was nearly decapitated with a shoulder to the head by Daniel Paille. Members of the Bruins and the Stars paired off, but nothing happened. Not a single shot to the noggin. Barely a naughty word uttered.

The call for more fisticuffs may seem strange following last week’s Canadiens/Bruins debacle that resulted in 182 penalty minutes and offered a number of brawls not seen since Detroit and Colorado regularly went at it a decade ago. But it’s time for a change.

Now, before anyone suggests sending your humble scribe for antisocial behavior testing, I’m not talking about a return to the days of the Broad Street Bullies, who fought at the drop of a puck and perhaps did more to ruin the flow and retard the popularity of a wonderfully athletic sport.

For those of you who have been paying attention, this is a reversal of an earlier opinion. At least in part.

It was just a year ago, and in this very space, where I discussed Montreal parting ways with 273-pound George Laraque saying, “Fighting, for all its excitement and the great memories it recalls, is a gimmick the game no longer needs.”

While admitting I still enjoy a good on-ice scrap, I stand by the statement that the NHL doesn’t need fighting. But until the league makes it too financially risky to cheap-shot the competition, referees need to step aside and let players protect their own.

And the players need to step up. It is inexcusable to stand by and watch reckless blueliners take out a team’s best player.

Lord help anyone who got frisky with Gretzky, Lemieux or Yzerman.

Modern-day economics don’t provide the cap space to sign players whose only marketable skill is punching another person while standing erect on ice skates. The days of Dave Schultz (200 points and 2,294 penalty minutes) or the aforementioned Laraque (153 points, 1,126 penalty minutes) are over. And they should be.

But that doesn’t mean copying the European game is going to make things better.

Hockey is a fast and physical sport in which players are only getting bigger and faster, and with the league battling to stay relevant it cannot afford the loss of its most marketable players.

It seems strange, but the way to lessen violent hits could be to increase violent hits.

Just a thought.


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