Momentum Building To Ban Fighting In Pro Hockey

Hockey without fighting? What once seemed like total crazy talk is perhaps getting closer to becoming reality. And, not surprisingly, the uproar is coming mostly from the media. But a former NHL enforcer is the latest to throw his support behind making hockey a little bit friendlier.

hockey fight

Larry Playfair has 1814 penalty minutes in his NHL career — many coming in 5 minute intervals — but he told the Buffalo Sabres’ broadcast operation that he doesn’t think the game needs fighting anymore. He joins a growing group of writers who are saying enough is enough after a 21-year-old player recently died and another minor-leaguer suffered a seizure after fighting.

Playfair’s comments appear in Pierre LeBrun’s column on ESPN.COM:

“I think, in my lifetime, there will be no more fighting in the National Hockey League. I think the day is coming,” said Playfair, 50, in a recorded interview that will air on the Sabres’ team broadcast this weekend. “And that’s OK. The game is so much better than when I played. The game is skill on skill. It’s fun to watch.”

“Have you ever gone to a game and complained that you didn’t see a fight? I don’t anymore,” Playfair said. “It’s pretty good hockey.”

As someone who’s watched hockey for 25 years, I can appreciate what Playfair is saying. But even in the NHL’s toughest era (the 1970s and ’80s) there were a heck of a lot more pucks ending up in the back of the net than there are now (although we can largely blame the ballooning size of goalie equipment for that) . The NHL’s ugliest era was not Playfair’s heyday, but rather the dreadful decade ushered in by the neutral zone trap that proved so successful for the New Jersey Devils in the mid-’90s. Watching that was way more offensive than any fight I’ve seen.

Still, media giants like MACLEANS (they’re big in Canada) and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED are jumping on the fight-banning bandwagon.

MACLEANS in particular delved deep into the issue, and after reading their examination you can see that it’s getting much harder to justify keeping fighting as just part of the game:

“Violence in sports is father to violence in everyday life,” said Judge Sidney Harris of the Ontario provincial court in 1988, setting down a precept the justice system has upheld ever since. The public appears to agree. In poll after poll, Canadians say they look upon hockey as a means to teach values like respect, discipline and grace under pressure. Fully 54 per cent of respondents to a Harris-Decima survey conducted last week said they oppose fighting in the NHL.

SI’s column is a little more hyperbolic, but alludes to something that has been going on for years. It used to be that fighting in hockey stemmed from true emotion, and a real disdain for opponents. When the Bruins and Canadians got together in the ’70s, they hated each other. Not in a “oh, I totally hate you” sort of blasé thing, but actual hatred. Not so much of that these days, especially with players moving among teams so freely:

The old argument that fighting is a spontaneous outgrowth of the tensions that build up throughout a game hasn’t held water for years. If that were true, teams wouldn’t have specialized five-minute-a-night heavyweights to send out and any suggestion of “rules of engagement” would be nonsensical.  

If Gary Bettman is looking to make a splash, here’s his chance. Many say that the league has regressed in the 16 years since he took charge. Can he save his legacy by taking the bold but risky step of eliminating the one thing that gives his sport the most notoriety?