Were Friday night fights representative of NHL?

Some say Penguins-Islanders slugfest a dangerous sign for league

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Hockey is, as Mario Lemieux put it the other day, "a tough, physical game, and it always should be."

Few who love the sport the way it is played in the National Hockey League would dispute that.

But when it crosses the line?

"Hockey, like football, is a physical sport," Penguins president David Morehouse said in an interview Monday. "Is it more violent than other sports? I'm not sure. I think the league has been sensitive in looking at all parts of this, especially head shots, and we've made it known that we think they should look harder."

Some might have seen it as a seminal moment for the NHL when, Friday night in Uniondale, N.Y., on Long Island, the Penguins and New York Islanders brawled, elbowed and whacked each other to amass 346 total penalty minutes, including a franchise-record 163 for the Penguins. There were 15 major penalties for fighting, 10 ejections, 21 misconducts, and each team had no more than a handful of players left to finish out the Islanders' 9-3 romp.

It looked like a scene from Paul Newman's classic film "Slap Shot," except that it was a slap of reality.

Some might have seen it as equally powerful that, on Sunday, Lemieux, the Penguins' usually silent co-owner, bitterly complained about what he saw as the NHL's lax punishment for the more aggressive Islanders. He called the game a "travesty" and "sideshow," adding that the league "failed" to address it. The NHL suspended Islanders forwards Trevor Gillies for nine games and Matt Martin for four, and fined the team $100,000, with league vice president Colin Campbell saying that the Islanders "must bear some responsibility for their failure to control their players."

But will any of it resonate?

It is rare for anyone within the hockey culture -- including the elite, like Lemieux, a Hall of Fame player -- to publicly criticize the NHL. When someone does, it can generate big headlines, especially across Canada, the sport's birthplace.

But the Penguins-Islanders debacle, even with all its oddities, stood out only modestly even this month.

Two days earlier in Boston, the Bruins and Montreal Canadiens slugged their way to 13 fighting majors and 187 penalty minutes.

On Feb. 3, also in Boston, the Bruins and Dallas Stars had three fights in the game's first four official seconds, each immediately following a faceoff.

"It's strange," Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said Monday. "There have been a few brawls lately. We haven't had that much in a long time."

From the broader perspective:

• The NHL is on pace to have 703 fights this season, down slightly from the past two seasons and down 48 percent from 1987-88, but also up dramatically from 466 five years ago. The Penguins have 61 major penalties for fighting, six more than any other team.

• Dirty play is far more difficult to quantify, but concussions are on pace to match the 84 of last season, about 11 more than the average since 1997. This is despite a new rule banning some blindside hits. Foremost among the concussion victims, of course, is the Penguins' Sidney Crosby, who took two blindside hits to the head in early January and still has no target date to return.

• Minor penalties for cross-checking, high-sticking and roughing are down from last season, according to NHL spokesman Frank Brown, but there have been four match penalties -- the most egregious, resulting in ejection -- to equal all of last season. There have been 69 game misconducts, four more than all of last season, nine more than two years ago.

"We monitor everything," Brown said.

Fighting always has been part of the NHL, and there is little momentum to change that. Proponents believe that fighting deters dirty play more strongly than anything the league or on-ice officials could legislate.

"I've always felt that fighting is a deterrent, and I never was one to back down from a fight," said Rick Tocchet, one of the toughest players in the Penguins' history and a former Tampa Bay coach. "When I took the ice for a game in St. Louis and I ran Brett Hull, I knew I'd have to answer to Tony Twist. I'd keep my elbows up the whole game."

Twist was a fighter for the Blues.

"But with head shots?" Tocchet continued. "The only real deterrent there, I think, is going to be from the league in the form of fines and suspensions. I still think fighting can deter some of that, but not as much nowadays."

Nothing infuriates those inside the sport more than a player operating outside its unwritten code: Anyone looking for revenge for a check should drop the gloves and fight, or come back with a clean check of his own.

But a willful intent to injure?

Tocchet attended hockey legend Wayne Gretzky's fantasy camp in Las Vegas last weekend and said he, Hull, Chris Chelios and other former NHL stars had plenty of discussions about what happened on Long Island and what they believe is happening to the game in general.

"My own feeling is that I find that players just aren't as afraid to hurt somebody," Tocchet said. "I mean, you can knock a guy down. You want the other team to know that you played them. But to hurt somebody, like you really want to hurt them, like you want to end their career ... that's unfortunate. And I think that's changed in the game."

The Islanders' response Friday to what they felt was a questionable hit by the Penguins' Max Talbot in a previous game was well outside that: Micheal Haley, a fighter, was recalled from the minor leagues especially for the game. Martin tried to sucker-punch Talbot from behind. Gillies blindsided rookie Eric Tangradi with an elbow to the face and, after Tangradi crumbled, Gillies tried to punch him, then taunted him.

Later, Haley challenged Penguins goaltender Brent Johnson to fight, prompting enforcer Eric Godard to leap over the bench and defend him. Godard was suspended 10 games, automatically, for leaving the bench.

Penguins general manager Ray Shero on Monday called it all "a black mark on our game."

Jay Caufield, an enforcer on the Penguins' championship teams of the early 1990s, called it "unlike anything I've seen, certainly at the NHL level."

"This was not what we put on the ice every night," Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke told Canada's Globe and Mail. "It was something from the '70s."

The Penguins hardly are innocent in the broader context.

In addition to having the most fights, their 1,113 penalty minutes lead the NHL, a byproduct of the wish to protect their star talents such as Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. And, as many critics of Lemieux's remarks Sunday have noted, they employ rugged forward Matt Cooke, one of the league's most reviled players for his oft-questionable hits. Cooke currently is serving a four-game suspension for a check from behind.

"We're equipped to play in the context of today's rules," Morehouse, the Penguins' president, said. "That doesn't mean we don't think the game can be changed for the better."

Hockey's violent history runs deep: In 1933, Boston star Eddie Shore checked Toronto's Ace Bailey from behind, fracturing his skull as it hit the ice and ending his career. In 2000, the Bruins' Marty McSorley swung his stick at the head of the Vancouver Canucks' Donald Brashear in an incident that drew international attention. And, most painful in the league's recent memory, in 2004, the Canucks' Todd Bertuzzi sucker-punched the Colorado Avalanche's Steve Moore from behind and ended his career.

But these things go in cycles for the NHL, just like the Edmonton-style offense and the New Jersey-style defense have. When the league emerged from its lockout five years ago, fights were down dramatically in part because rules were changed to strictly prevent hooking and holding. Teams then used their fringe roster spots on speedy players rather than fighters.

Now, that cycle has come around, and fans are pretty much guaranteed to see a fight in about half the games played.

If they do not turn away.

There is a long-held assumption that hockey fans love fighting, and there is some unscientific evidence to support that: When two players drop their gloves at Consol Energy Center or any NHL arena, it brings one of the game's loudest roars. When ESPN or other national TV networks choose their highlights, they commonly choose a fight over a fancy goal. When Johnson earlier this month decked his Islanders goaltending counterpart, Rick DiPietro, with one punch, it became a YouTube sensation with 462,000 views. There is even a fan site, hockeyfights.com, tracks only the NHL's fights.

But neither Lemieux nor Crosby ever has fought much -- Lemieux had six in his career, Crosby has five -- and they have always scored well in the area of entertainment. And some, including Morehouse, wonder if that might not be enough.

"We should look at how we can make the game safer for the players, No. 1, and better for the fans, No. 2," he said. "I'd be an advocate as far as us looking hard at what the fans want, the best way to grow the game."

Morehouse said internal research by the Penguins showed that, in the past three years alone, they have doubled their fan base -- those who attend, watch or listen to games -- from 600,000 to 1.2 million. In those surveys, he said, focus groups were asked what they like or dislike about hockey.

"I know that the typical hockey fan doesn't love games like Friday night, and I'm not really sure if they love fighting," Morehouse said. "It does put our sport in a rather awkward position, compared to other sports in the United States. It's difficult to walk that fine line."

One ironic example: While some in the NHL push for a ban on checks to the head, the league openly invites fighting, which essentially is little more than a series of blows to the head.

"One reason we learned for why some people don't like hockey is that they see the game as confusing in the way it's officiated, and that includes fighting," Morehouse said. "I can't tell you how many times I've had a guest in my suite who sees a fight and asks, 'How come they're allowed to do that?' It's a tough question to answer."

Morehouse stressed he was "not an advocate of banning fighting" and added, "This game is the fastest in the world, and it has enough action where you don't need to keep it for the fans."

Morehouse reiterated that his top priority at the league level is fortifying Rule 48, the one implemented last summer that bans some blindside hits, to include all checks to the head. Currently, such hits are prohibited only if deemed intentional.

"That's asking a lot of the referee because only one person knows if it's intentional," he said. "We get ourselves in trouble anytime there's a gray area."

The NHL's Brown said the current version of Rule 48 has been enforced strictly and effectively.

"On a nightly basis, we see instances of players passing up the opportunities for such hits," he said. "But that type of play doesn't make the highlight shows or the front pages."

Other than Shero, the Penguins declined further comment specifically about the Friday game, choosing to let Lemieux's remarks stand.

Although other team owners have been fined by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for criticizing the league, indications were strong Monday that would not be the case for Lemieux.

Post-Gazette staff writer Seth Rorabaugh contributed to this report. Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at the DK on Pittsburgh Sports blog on PG+.


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