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Monday, January 19, 2004
Does fighting belong in the NHL?

By asked two of its hockey experts -- analyst and former coach Barry Melrose and longtime hockey columnist Terry Frei of the Denver Post -- to give their thoughts on fighting's place in the game. Submit yours in our SportsNation poll.

Barry Melrose: Yes Terry Frei: No
There is no doubt fighting belongs in the NHL. It is a part of hockey history and has been in the game since Day One, and when used properly fighting is an effective tool in many ways.

For example, I broadcasted a recent game between the Rangers and Hurricanes in Carolina. The 'Canes came out flat and trailed 1-0 after the first period. Just 39 seconds into the second, Carolina's Jesse Boulerice got into a scrap with Rangers enforcer Chris Simon, who looked to be winning the fight. But Boulerice would not go down and got stronger as the fight went on. The building erupted.

The crowd, teams and the game were different after the fight. The Hurricanes tied the score a little more than two minutes later and eventually went on to a 3-2 victory, thanks in part to the emotional boost they got from Boulerice. There is no way they win that game without that fight.

The threat of fisticuffs is also a deterrent, a way for teams to police each other and hold each other accountable. If a player wants to go after the opponent's star players he should have to stand up and defend himself for it. A team has to protect its stars and do so in a physical manner if need be.

The threat of retaliation or retribution cuts down the slashing, whacking and other stick work. But that threat has been taken away by the instigator rule -- which calls for a minor penalty to be assessed to a player who starts a fight. As a result, players don't stand up for each other for fear of putting their team down a man and fighting is no longer used as effectively, which is why some make the argument that fighting is no longer necessary in the NHL.

Those who say fighting is just gratuitous violence don't understand the game, and they also fail to see the entertainment value in it. I've never seen anyone get up and leave an NHL game during a fight, so why do away with something exciting that can keep fans in the seats? These are the same people who are simply opposed to violence of any kind and think boxing should be outlawed, too.

And if you want to make the argument that fighting is going to hold the NHL back and prevent it from becoming anything more than a niche sport, I say hockey is past that point anyway. The game is on major networks all week and is the top draw in many big markets. Hockey may be the No. 4 sport in the United States, but it has a major presence in many areas which has not been hurt one bit by fighting.

The only thing that should be changed about fighting is the instigator rule. Teams need the ability to police each other and a player should not be penalized for trying to help his team, either by protecting the stars or swinging the momentum of the game.

Things are entirely different now than back in the days of the bench-clearing brawls in the 1970s and early 80s. With the NHL now putting four officials on the ice, no one is getting seriously hurt in fights. Fighting is an effective tool, just like a potent power play, and taking it out of the game does not make sense for the players or fans.
Fighting, at least in the traditional fashion, does not belong in the game.
I can summarize my stand in three words: It's just stupid.

Here's the deal: Ninety percent of NHL fights are moronic your-slug-vs.-my-slug sideshows. What does that have to do with "protecting" star players or with accountability? The ONLY argument that makes any sense at all is that some fans love it and it can be an attempt to swing momentum. Those are low-rent reasons.

Accountability and deterrence? Stickwork and such? OK, if it worked that way, this would be a reasonable argument. But deterrence and retribution and accountability too often are not what NHL fighting is about. At least not often enough. And even if it were, it's still silly.

Know what? In the NFL, there would be fewer roughing the passer penalties if the offense's enforcer could challenge the defensive lineman to a take off the helmets and fight, get offsetting 15-yarders and have to sit out three plays. There would be fewer defensive backs making idiots of themselves after making a big hit for an 11-yard gain if someone would challenge him to a fight for showboating.

How about if you get called for boarding, checking from behind or a high-sticking double minor, you step to the center of the ice and fight with the other team's enforcer? If you get the bejeebers kicked out of you for those kinds of penalties, they'd go down, wouldn't they? If that circus helped cut down those penalties and made the game better, let's do it!

Or if you say the fans love it? Fine. Just schedule fights. Like TV timeouts. And how about one heavyweight, one middleweight, one welterweight? That might shift momentum, too! No, there isn't spontaneity, but so what.

Yes, I'm kidding. Well, mostly. I'm just saying that fighting is a sideshow the game doesn't need, and it too often doesn't even serve the purpose it's supposed to serve.

And then you get beyond those issues. The NHL's problem often is that nobody in Topeka takes it serious. Should we care? Well, if the NHL ever is going to make inroads beyond the core, yeah, we should. We all have friends who think hockey still is guys without teeth fighting all the time, and that's because that's all they see on TV.

Until the NHL finds ways to shed that image and gain credibility in other ways, it won't make inroads. Want to remain the fourth, niche sport with knowledgeable, fanatic fans? Fine. If that's what everyone wants. But admit that never will change. The NHL can do better than that.

And maybe you don't want to hear it. But there is something wrong with sitting with your 12-year-old and telling him fighting is part of the game, and that everyone screaming for Scott Parker to bash Matt Johnson's face in is a good thing. (And, yes, I like boxing.)

The cliche that Europeans develop talent because they don't have fighting in their game is true. Meanwhile, several fights in major junior do those players a lot of good.
Get fighting out of the game, at every level, and start worrying about developing talent again.
Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN. He'll answer selected questions submitted to his e-mail bag each week. Also, click here to send Barry a question for possible use on ESPNEWS. Terry Frei is a regular contributor to He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."