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Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Status quo not acceptable for fighting rules

By Pierre LeBrun

The NHL’s all-time winningest coach has seen it all in his day, and he agrees with Steve Yzerman that something has to be done to curb fighting in the sport.

"It’s a pretty complex issue," Scotty Bowman told ESPN.com Wednesday. "But with the emphasis on hits to the head and the seriousness of concussions, if you look at fighting -- it’s mostly hits to the head. It’s something that has to be looked at."

The age-old debate over fighting was re-energized Tuesday night after a scary incident in which Montreal Canadiens tough guy George Parros slammed his head into the ice and was knocked out cold. He’s out indefinitely with a concussion.

Yzerman made strong comments against fighting to my TSN teammate Darren Dreger on Wednesday.

"I believe a player should get a game misconduct for fighting,” Yzerman told Dreger. “We penalize and suspend players for making contact with the head while checking in an effort to reduce head injuries yet we still allow fighting.

“We’re stuck in the middle and need to decide what kind of sport do we want to be. Either anything goes and we accept the consequences or take the next step and eliminate fighting.”

The Hall of Fame player and Tampa GM declined to elaborate on the matter when contacted via email by ESPN.com on Wednesday, but also made it clear that he’s not backing down from what he said.

The NHL is not ignoring the issue. It’s been raised at several GMs’ meetings over the years, but the result is always the same: the conversation goes in circles and there’s not enough managers that share the views of Yzerman or Ray Shero or Jim Rutherford -- the minority of GMs who want to do something about fighting. And there is constant dialogue in the league office about the issue.

"We are constantly in touch with our various constituents, including our players and our fans, on all issues pertaining to the game on the ice. At the current time, there is not an appetite to change the rules with respect to fighting," Colin Campbell, the executive vice-president and director of hockey operations for the NHL, told ESPN.com in an emailed statement.

"That said, we intend to continue to review all aspects of our game, with a focus on making it as safe as it can be for our players.:

It is all but a certainty that some managers will push for the topic to be on the agenda when the general managers assemble Nov. 12 in Toronto.

The league has chipped away at the issue over the years, putting in the instigator penalty, as well as the automatic one-game suspension rule for getting an instigator penalty in the last five minutes of the game. This season’s new rule penalizing players for taking their helmets off in a fight is also in that spirit, although the early returns aren’t too promising. It doesn’t have enough teeth, frankly.

More needs to be done. One idea that I have espoused in the past has to do with a threshold/quota system in which players get automatic suspensions after a certain number of fighting majors. The Ontario Hockey League instituted such a rule last season. The result? Fighting majors were down just over 24 percent in the major junior league.

Bowman also had an idea to address the safety issue in fights:

"If helmets are not on a player’s head, the fight is concluded immediately or further penalties will be assessed," Bowman said. "This would not have had an effect on [the] Orr-Parros situation, but in a lot of incidents, the danger to the head when falling to the ice is prevalent."

And this is more than just about waiting for the NHL head office to do more. This has to be about players, coaches, owners, everyone who has a direct stake in the game embracing change.

"I definitely believe the players have to have a voice in this," Bowman said.

Veteran Nashville Predators GM David Poile, also the GM of Team USA for Sochi, agreed with Bowman.

"The players need to have a voice in this, it’s their game as much as ours. We as managers meet on a regular basis, three or four times a year, and every meeting the last few years has been about safety, including fighting. It’s about making it a safer environment for the players. But I haven’t heard one player say he doesn’t want fighting in the game. We need to figure this out together."

Status quo can’t be accepted anymore. There’s hypocrisy of the highest level at play here.

You’ve got a pro sport that has gone a long way in its attempt to curb illegal checks to the head and educate players on concussions, and yet still allows bare-knuckle punches to the head.

"I don’t know much about boxing, but why did they decide to put gloves on years ago?," mused Bowman.

"If we’re really on track with the hits to the head, we’re really going to have a problem if we allow hits to the head in fighting."

Factor in the recent NFL lawsuit settlement with players and you understand all the bigger-picture factors at play here for hockey.

Whether you like or not, folks, change is coming when it comes to fighting in the NHL. It won’t be overnight, but it’s coming.