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Why is Fighting an NHL Necessity?

Let me preface this by saying, I believe fighting could be eliminated from hockey. In the perfect world, there is certainly no need for tough guys to go nose-to-nose every night.

However, it has become a necessity. If you don’t want your team intimidated and if you don’t want to watch the opposition have its way with you, you must fight back. The rulebook and referees aren’t there to help the teams that play a tough, clean game. The rulebook and the referees are there to make sure the toughest team has a chance to be the toughest team.

Chris Thorburn fights Tom Sestito of the Flyers.

Chris Thorburn fights Tom Sestito of the Flyers.

So instead of dreaming about hockey without fighting, let’s talk about why it’s a necessity, at least at the NHL level and perhaps at the junior level, too.

* * *

Here in Canada there is a TV hockey commentator who has reached Universal Superstar status on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada.

Former Boston Bruins coach Don Cherry wears wild sports jackets and talks nonsense and yet has become one of the most important voices in hockey over the past 25 years. He is beloved in my country and while I don’t often agree with him (there are a lot of European hockey players I like a whole lot, not just as players but as people), I do agree with him on one thing.

Mark Stuart throws a couple.

Mark Stuart throws a couple.

Fighting in hockey is a necessity.

The problem with the game is simple and it is a problem that was proven to exist in 2005. That’s when Gary Bettman’s second lockout ended and he promised that the NHL would change it’s game.

The officials would call hooking, holding and interference more closely. The officials would be told to open up the game; allow smaller, faster, more skilled players to have the necessary room to score and play the game at a very exciting pace; and while it would fill up the penalty box, players would adapt, Bettman said.

Colton Orr goes at it with Deryk Engelland of the Penguins.

Colton Orr goes at it with Deryk Engelland of the Penguins.

Well, that theory lasted about a year. By 2007, the players had not adapted, the penalty boxes were full and the media critics were out in full force, unhappy with all the power plays. The media had declared the NHL to be “the special teams league.” The NHL was the same old bump-and-grind and the little guys were being forced out by big lumbering grinders with defense-first sensibilities and stone hands.

Some scorers remained, no question about that, but they were being butchered by the stick-carrying grinders who once again had made the NHL the hooking, holding and interference league.

Jordin Tootoo wins another fight

Jordin Tootoo wins another fight

About that time, the fighters, who had been forced to the sideline by the league’s open-ice experiment, started making a comeback. Today, it’s hard to find a team that doesn’t have at least one player who can go toe-to-toe, fist-to-the-face whenever the coach deems it necessary. The fans still love a good, old fashioned donnybrook and when the goons go out and do their thing, the game seems to settle down for a while.

The problem, of course, is that when the goal scorers are stick-checked out of the game, the enforcers have to step in to protect their teammates. If the officials are not going to enforce the rules, the game becomes little more than the Wild West and the Wild West needs Wild West justice.

Don Cherry isn’t right very often, but when he supports fighting and protects fighters, he knows of what he speaks. Until the league decides permanently that penalties are penalties and, as the rulebook clearly suggests, the game should be opened up for the exciting, skilled players, it’s the fighters who will have to step in and protect the scorers.

It might not be ideal, but until the officials stop managing games and start calling the rules properly, it’s the way it has to be.

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