November 1, 2014

OPINION: Banishment of fighting is coming, and it’s none too soon

Monday night, the Washington Capitals went up to Boston to take on the Bruins in a seemingly meaningless preseason game. The Caps took their full second line and their top goalie, but that’s just about the reach of NHL talent that went on the road trip.

What happened, then, when a bunch of young guys and career minor leaguers trying to make names for themselves went up against the big, bad Bruins? You guessed it — Fight Night!

There were five fights in all, two by Joel Rechlicz, who makes his living doing just this sort of thing in Hershey, one by Aaron Volpatti (trying — probably in vain — to earn a coveted forward spot on Opening night), and one each by minor leaguers Michal Cajkovski and Dane Byers.

Coming on the heels of the debacle in Toronto Sunday night, this was just yet another embarrassment for the league and everyone involved.

I should confess — I don’t like fighting. I think it’s unnecessary and outdated. It’s a tie to the dark ages of the game when stick swinging and other nefarious acts were perpetrated on rinks from PEI to Saskatoon. Well, we’ve still got that crap too, as we saw Zack Kassian try to decapitate Sam Gagner Saturday night.

Here’s a gratuitous picture of Gagner’s face following the incident.

The league has had continual problems with intentional head shots, elbows, stick swinging and concussions, and the fighting that’s supposed to curb that doesn’t seem to do a damn thing. It never has.

Fighting continues because it’s part of the entertainment value of the game. Pure and simple.

Let me rephrase — I don’t like staged fighting. If two guys get tangled up or are pushing for position and they start to swing at each other out of aggression naturally and organically, I’m okay with that. That’s part of the game. It’s physical and fast and there are occasions when guys are going to be overcome with adrenaline or feel they’ve been taken advantage of.

I don’t want to take checking out of the game. I don’t want to take away the contact. I want the stupidity removed.

The retribution fights, and the “momentum” fights and the fighting for fighting’s sake fights, or the immature stupidity on display Sunday in Toronto? That’s the part of the game that we can, and should, live without.

I’ve heard ad nauseum the adage that if you take fighting out of the game, headhunters will have a field day. Well, let me tell you, Rene Bourque is still employed even with the fighting. If staged fighting was eliminated, all the league would have to do is enforce rules ALREADY ON THEIR BOOKS about head shots and intentional attempts to injure.

You injure a player with an illegal hit? You suffer the consequences of suspension and loss of paycheck. Repeat offender? Sit the rest of the season. Third offense? You miss the following year. Get where I’m going with this? But it will be up to the league to take the suspension process seriously.

The league instituted the silly rule this season that players cannot remove their helmets to fight. Coupled with the new visor rule for all incoming players, it’s supposed to be a deterrent from staged fighting. But we’ve already seen in the preseason where combatants are removing their opponent’s headgear before proceeding to pummel each other into early retirement. It would be comically asinine, except for the early dementia, depression, drug addiction and early death for so many of these multiply-concussed fighters.

The league doesn’t have the, ahem, testicular fortitude to ban fighting — yet — because they are painfully aware that a large segment of their fan base wants to see the violence. In its rich history, the league has yet to have a player die on the ice from a fight. It’s only a matter of time, unfortunately.

With the concussion problem, and former fighters dying at still-young ages after their playing days are over, the league knows they have to do something. They’ve seen the results of the NFL concussion lawsuits. It’s only a matter of time before those lawyers organize retired NHL players for their own suits. Think I’m crazy? You haven’t been around enough plaintiff’s lawyers. A $650 million settlement for the NHL, as was the case for the NFL, would kill the league as we now know it.

As much lip service as the league is giving “player safety”, the real reason for the helmet law is to set a timeline that limits the statute of limitations for lawsuits. Banishment of staged fighting is coming, whether you like it or not. It can’t come soon enough for me.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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