Sports

Fighting on the ropes?

Ryan Cuthbert of the Kelowna Rockets gets the upper hand in a 2006 scrap against a Kamloops Blazer. - Kevin Mitchell/Morning Star File
Ryan Cuthbert of the Kelowna Rockets gets the upper hand in a 2006 scrap against a Kamloops Blazer.
— image credit: Kevin Mitchell/Morning Star File

You wanna go? It’s a long-standing and simple question asked seconds before a hockey fight starts.

Unless a player is injured or has been asked by his coach not to scrap on a certain night, the answer is almost always yes.

I have one oldtime hockey fights video on VHS and have always loved watching tilts at the NHL, WHL or BCHL level. I support keeping fighting in hockey, but it appears it could be on the way out.

David Branch, who wields a lot of power as commissioner of the Canadian Hockey League (three Major Junior loops), is lobbying to have scraps banned starting next season.

Branch believes his league doesn’t need fighting as a mechanism to sell the game, that fights are not a big part of the entertainment package.

Said Branch, in a Q&A with the Toronto Star: “I believe with the evolution of our league, better coaching, better training, better athletes, the pure skill and competitive nature of our game and the excitement our players bring, stands alone as an ability to sell our game.

“There always has been and always will be an element that likes fighting but it’s not what we feel is a necessary force to keep fighting in our game.”

Branch says the CHL is out to remove the one-dimensional player, the palooka who doesn’t have the necessary skill to play the game. His only real attribute is to fight.

The enforcer is fast becoming a dinosaur in the NHL, where tough guys Colton Orr of the Leafs and Steve MacIntrye of the Penguins were demoted to the minors earlier this season.

The Penguins decided last year that Vernon’s Eric Godard, one of the league’s most feared fighters, was expendable because d-man Deryk Engelland, a Sicamous Eagles’ grad, could handle most opponents and also play more minutes.

Godard signed a two-year deal with the Dallas Stars last summer, but has spent the entire year with their AHL Texas affiliate.

Fighting majors in the NHL have declined 25 per cent this season, according to USA Today. And the New York Times did some research and discovered that of the last 15 teams winning the Stanley Cup, only four were among the teams with the most fighting majors in the regular season.

And Gabriel Desjardins, an NHL consultant who runs behindthenet.ca, did some number crunching and proved that while many people figure a fighting victory gives teams a lift, he said it was worth a little more than a 1/80th of a win in the standings.

Chris Crowell, one of the fiercest wingers/fighters in Viper history, used to get the crowd going with a staged tilt seconds after the opening faceoff. He won most of them. He doesn’t do any fighting with the NCAA University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves, where fighting is outlawed.

“I think fighting needs to stay in the game,” Crowell told me. “It adds a level of accountability between players that the refs can’t provide. Also, it adds another dimension for the fans. Most of the fans love watching the fights. Here in college, there is no fighting, and it is a different game than juniors or pro.

“Here in Anchorage the two major hockey teams are us and the Aces, who play in the ECHL. We play in the same rink and the Aces draw bigger crowds, and many of fans say they prefer the Aces because of the fighting.

“So apart from the accountability it brings between the players on the ice, it adds another element for the fans. And ultimately the fans’ opinion is what matters.”

Former Viper coach Bernie Pimm, who also worked behind the Kamloops Blazers’ bench, studies the game closely. He is now involved in minor hockey in Ottawa.

“I think the answer to the question of fighting in hockey, is answered during the NHL playoffs,” said Pimm. “For two months a year the viewing ratings for hockey goes through the roof, yet ironically there is no hockey fights....I don’t think hockey needs fighting to sell the game and if the OHL is banning fighting we will still support it.”

Mike Kermode, a former Vernon freelance journalist, writes a Vancouver Canucks blog, and is concerned about a fighting ban being implemented.

“I feel like stick violations and cheap shots may become more frequent,” Kermode told me. “I imagine there will still be scraps in certain situations but they will just result in suspensions or whatnot. I fear that players will take advantage of not having to own up to their actions and gutless plays will be on the rise.”

Vernon’s Trent Dorais, hard-nosed captain of the Alberni Valley Bulldogs, sees fighting as a way of keeping players in line.

“I think that fighting in hockey is a way of keeping everyone on the ice honest, and it is an exiting part of the game that fans enjoy watching.

“The amount of head shots and cheap shots to players will increase if dropping the mitts is not an option. I know for myself when I see another player hit one of my teammates from behind, he will pay the price and that’s the way it should be.”

The Rangers and Bruins lead the NHL in fighting penalties and they are two of the higher seeds heading into the playoffs.

Fighting, as Pimm noted, always drops in the post-season, where Scotty Bowman of the Red Wings used to counter an opposing team’s use of tough guys by sending out skilled players. He won a couple of Cups with Detroit without an enforcer. He believed that carrying a specialist was a handicap.

The WHL’s 22 teams rack up more than 600 fighting majors a year. Scott Parker of the Kelowna Rockets, who rarely lost a scrap, was a first-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche. He finished his NHL career with seven goals and 700 PIM.

You won’t see teams drafting a fighter in the first round any longer. The OHL, by banning fights, will ensure its players get drafted on their skill basis and not pugilist record.

Will be an interesting summer as the debate rages on.

 

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