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Friday, March 30, 2007
Fighting issue should be least of league's worries

By Scott Burnside,

Do us a favor and wake us when the fighting debate is over. Ho-hum. Is there anything more predictable than the outcry over the role of fighting in hockey after a couple of highlight-reel KOs?

The NHL should be less concerned about the place of fighting in the game than the apparently criminal lack of IQ of players who are most likely to fight. At the very least, it would make for an interesting college study -- are players who fight regularly more or less likely to be considered dunderheads than the rest of the NHL population? We don't think it'd take too long to come up with a thesis.

Exhibit A would be Todd Fedoruk, who squared off with New York Rangers bruiser Colton Orr and ended up with his face caved in for his troubles. If it weren't for the fact this is the second time this season Fedoruk has suffered such a fate, we might be able to work up a bit of sympathy. But Fedoruk's beating followed his earlier deconstruction at the hands of Minnesota knuckle-dragger Derek Boogaard.

Exhibit B would be the Atlanta Thrashers' Jon Sim, who, in an effort to spark his team in the middle of a beating by the San Jose Sharks last week, challenged 6-foot-4 forward Mark Bell to fight. Sim is 5-foot-10. Even Bell seemed incredulous before he destroyed the New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, native. Sim might have had better luck -- and suffered less structural damage to his face -- if he had simply stuck said face in a fan. He didn't and suffered a fractured orbital bone as a result. Sim is a fine fellow and isn't looking for any sympathy. Which is a good thing given the staggering stupidity of his actions. Sim, a useful member of a good Thrashers team, is done for the season.

The problem with the debate over fighting is it bleeds into the more serious areas of attention, like blows to the head, a matter which is truly worthy of the league's debate. No one should suggest Chris Simon's attack on Ryan Hollweg or Cam Janssen's late, cowardly hit on Tomas Kaberle have anything to do with Fedoruk and Sim. They don't. The former represent an area of grave concern; the latter represent the kind of idiocy that has been part of the NHL culture for nigh on a century. It doesn't excuse the whole idea of two men interrupting a game so they can pound each other silly, but it's hardly worthy of the equivalent of a Royal Commission.

The fighting issue can be boiled down to one simple element -- what do Americans think of us? The NHL remains in constant pinball mode when it comes to the American public, trying to establish rules and schedules and television contracts in the hopes of currying favor with American fans and then fretting about what Americans think about the game the rest of the time.

The fighting issue is a prime example of that. Fighting is down 40 percent from before the lockout. The game is faster, better and has, in some ways, rendered many of the nonthinking players obsolete. How many NHL games have Krzysztof Oliwa, Francis Lessard and Dale Purinton played this season? Zero. As it should be.

Fighting is such a small part of the game, in part because it is practiced by that small, mentally challenged portion of the NHL population, that it hardly deserves consideration at all, let alone the hand-wringing recent days has prompted.

Some like to point to the fact that hockey is the only pro sport that "allows" fighting. As if baseball doesn't "allow" bean balls and high, dangerous slides into second base with Ginsu-like cleats. As if football doesn't "allow" spear-tackling, hits to the head, late hits and assorted eye-gouging and organ groping on almost every play. In all of those instances, players are subject to penalty, fine and/or suspension if they engage in those acts, just as NHL players are subject to penalty, fine and/or suspension for fighting too vigorously or too often.

Here's our prediction: The same number of fans, and we're guessing it would be about 17, would start watching NHL games if fighting were eliminated as would stop watching the game because they miss fighting.

End of story. Hopefully.

You really want to help eradicate the kind of senseless, potentially devastating hits to the head we've seen lately? Why not add a couple of tools to the referees' tool box?

Referees are expected to call an interference or obstruction penalty if a player without the puck finds his progress impeded. Similarly, an interference call should be made when a player who has just had the puck is hit long after he's given it up, because he's being interfered with, right?

Moreover, if a referee had the ability to levy a major penalty for interference, if such a late hit warranted it, wouldn't that be a good thing? Take the Cam Janssen hit on Tomas Kaberle -- a hit that cost the Leafs their best defenseman for three weeks of the playoff drive. No penalty was called on the play, but if the referees had a major penalty for interference in their bag of tricks, it might have been employed then. More important, the implied threat of such a penalty might have given Janssen pause before he headhunted the unsuspecting Kaberle.

Something to think about, no? And while we're on the topic, since it looks like no one is interested in eliminating touch icing, why not give referees the latitude to impose a tripping major? It would be for those nightmarish scenarios when a defender is being beaten to the puck and takes the skates out from under a charging forward sending him crashing into the end boards. Maybe that player would think twice about engaging in potentially dangerous behavior.


Barry Melrose talks about Rick DiPietro's recent troubles.
Joe Thornton With little fanfare, the man they call Jumbo Joe, Joe Thornton, has eased back into both the NHL scoring race and the debate over who should earn this year's MVP honors.

After suffering quietly through a broken toe that plagued him for the first six weeks of the season, and then a broken finger courtesy of a slash, Thornton has regained the form that saw him win his first scoring title and Hart Trophy as league MVP last season.

"He was playing with nagging injuries that a lot of guys wouldn't have even played with, and he didn't even miss a practice. It's phenomenal that he's hung in there," Sharks coach Ron Wilson told recently.

Since Dec. 7, no other NHLer has scored as many points as Thornton (77) and he's moved into second place in the scoring race, trailing super sophomore Sidney Crosby by 12 points after Crosby's three-point performance against Boston on Thursday evening.

Thornton failed to register a point in Tuesday's 3-1 win over Los Angeles, the first time he's been held off the score sheet in the past 11 games. He has registered at least a point in 15 of 17 as the San Jose Sharks have crawled back into the battle for the Pacific Division crown. The Sharks also have an outside shot at the conference title and the Presidents' Trophy as the top regular-season team.

The veteran coach insists he's not lobbying for Thornton to take home more hardware this season, although he said there's an argument to be made that Thornton is actually playing better than during his breakout campaign last season.

Perhaps more important for the Cup-hopeful Sharks has been the snarl in Thornton's game in recent weeks. When opposing teams have tried to get Thornton off his game with physical play, Wilson said Thornton has often responded by throwing a big check of his own.

"We need passion from our leaders, and that passion becomes infectious on the team," Wilson said. "He's bringing that. If that doesn't rub off on your team, then you're not the team you need to be."
-- S.B.
Games on our radar the next few days:

Crosby • Saturday, Penguins at Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET: Let's face it, pretty much every game in the Eastern Conference is bound up with playoff implications. But this will be one to watch as two teams with different goals face off. The Penguins, already assured of a playoff berth, have their sights set on the Atlantic title and home ice through at least the first round, while the Leafs are trying to avoid missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season. The Leafs, healthy for the first time in months, need to collect wins and points; they trail most of their competition in wins, the first tiebreaker after points.

Forsberg • Saturday, Stars at Predators, 8 p.m. ET: The Western Conference standings look to be volatile through the end of the regular season, but this one has the smell of a first-round preview. The Stars have an outside chance of catching Anaheim for the Pacific title, but they will face a stern test against one of the best home teams in the league. The Predators, meanwhile, continue to run neck and neck with Detroit for the top spot in the Central and the conference.
Complete NHL schedule