NHL: Quit pulling punches on fighting

Action serves no purpose and keeps the sport from growing nationally

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There is only one thing more ridiculous than the fighting that takes place in the National Hockey League, and that is the wholly illogical attempts of those in the game to justify this hooliganism.

Fighting in hockey is an absolute joke and the sooner the powers that be admit it -- they already know it -- the better off the sport will be.

For every new fan fighting turns on in Pittsburgh and other NHL hot spots, it turns off several others in vital areas where the league must gain a foothold if it ever wishes to be remotely competitive with sports higher up the dollar chain.

At present, the NHL is turning a nice profit and might be content to be the niche league its television ratings say it is. But if it ever wants to crash the big time -- where woebegone franchises like the Pirates turn a profit the Penguins can only dream of -- it needs to appeal to a broader spectrum of fans.

Fighting does not do that for the NHL. As much as it energizes fans in the various buildings around the league, it turns off the prospective fans outside those building. The NHL needs to grow its base. Fighting is stopping it from doing that.

There are few more absurd images to come from the field of play in recent days than the one that occurred in the Penguins game Tuesday night with the Philadelphia Flyers. The game was barely five minutes old when the Penguins' Eric Godard, who has three goals and 501 penalty minutes in 205 NHL games, and the Flyers' Riley Cote, who has one goal and 223 penalty minutes in 82 NHL games, dropped their gloves, raised their fists and began the slow dance that usually precedes an NHL fight.

As hockey brawls go, it was a good one with plenty of legitimate punches thrown. But what purpose did it serve?

If the intent of these two players was to fire up their teammates, it didn't work. There wasn't a goal scored for another 30 minutes. If their intent was to show their employers they were doing what they're paid to do, it worked.

It also had the crowd going crazy. If this is what the fans come for, what a sad commentary on the sport. What a sad commentary on the dazzling skills of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin that two players who don't even belong in the league can inspire the crowd to such a level.

Another example of the absurdity of fighting came Thursday when on the faceoff following a Washington Capitals score that cut the Penguins margin to two goals, coach Michel Therrien sent seldom-used Paul Bissonnette on to the ice. No sooner had the puck been dropped than Bissonnette, who played 2 minutes, 33 seconds the entire game, went at it with the Capitals' Matt Bradley. Bissonnette put a whipping on Bradley, even drew some blood.

He showed them! The Capitals were so put off by this show of force they scored three more goals the remainder of the game. The Penguins were so energized by this brawl that they didn't score again and lost.

Fighting proves nothing.

Perhaps the most far-fetched excuse for fighting is that goons being available and ready to spring to the defense of their teammates make it less likely the opposing team will "take liberties" with star players.

Hockey players are regarded as the toughest of athletes. They are the least likely to miss a game, the most likely to return after taking 11 stitches to the face. That being the case, how is anyone with any intelligence going to believe that a hockey player would be derelict in his duties -- taking it easy on a star -- because he fears retaliation.

That goes totally against what hockey players stand for. They fear nothing.

To use a football analogy, there is no tougher player than the Steelers' Hines Ward. He backs down from no one and plays the game to its fullest. If the hockey mentality existed in football, Ward would be "afraid" to play his game for fear of retaliation. That is nonsense when it is applied to Ward and it is nonsense when applied to hockey players.

Does anyone really believe that if Brooks Orpik has a clean shot at Alex Ovechkin he would restrain himself for fear of retribution?

There is no reason for fighting in hockey other than it appeals to the crowd. The reaction to the fights at Mellon Arena Tuesday and Thursday last week said it all. It made the night for many of the fans and will keep bringing them back.

Meanwhile, hockey, which can be a ballet on ice, struggles for far-flung acceptance because it insists, for no good reason, to be best known as a barroom brawl on ice.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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