|Ryan Miller and Jonathan Bernier square off in a fight Sunday night (John E. Sokolowski - USA Today Sports)|
While most of Pittsburgh watched the Steelers fall to a disappointing 0-3 Sunday night, mayhem was ensuing farther north in Toronto. The game was chippy throughout, but after a fight between the Maple Leafs' Jamie Devane and the Sabres' Corey Tropp, things turned ugly. At the first face-off following the fight, Sabres' winger, John Scott, went after Leafs' center, Phil Kessel. For some background, John Scott is 6'8" 270 lbs and spent much of his career in the AHL or as a healthy reserve. Phil Kessel is 6'0" 202 lbs, a perennial all-star, and one of the game's finest forwards. So when Scott went after Kessel, Kessel’s natural response was to hit him with two-handed slashes. A line brawl ensued, culminating in a goalie fight between Sabre Ryan Miller and Leaf Jonathan Bernier. Oh, by the way, the Leafs ended up winning the PRESEASON GAME 5-3.
If you’ve read my bio, you know I grew up in the hockey town of Johnstown, PA. My family had season tickets to the ECHL Johnstown Chiefs for almost ten years, and one of my favorite movies is Slapshot. So, "Old-Time Hockey" is something I grew up with and thoroughly enjoyed. One of my favorite memories is from when I was eight years old -- I grabbed some nachos at the concession stand and waited for a break in the action so I could return to my seat. Our seats were located directly behind the Chiefs' bench, so I was standing between theirs and the opposing team's bench while I waited. Out of nowhere, a water bottle buzzed passed my head. This prompted the Chiefs' coach, Eddie Johnstone, to ask me whether the opposing team had thrown the bottle. I answered truthfully with a yes, and before I knew it, both benches cleared onto the ice and into the concourse, and a complete mess ensued. I went crazy, the crowd went crazy, and it was a great spectacle to behold. Funny thing is that I have no recollection of who scored in that game, how it was played, or who even won the game.
As someone who has always loved fighting in hockey and was of the opinion that it should never be banned, these past few seasons have changed my mind. It is no surprise that hockey's popularity dipped following the 2004-05 lockout. The NHL has been fighting, no pun intended, to gain that popularity back even since. It took another hit last year when half of the season was lost to yet another lockout. The NHL is not going to gain fans or even retain the fans they have based on fighting. They are going to do these things by providing an exciting brand of hockey with a league full of superstars. One of my favorite recent memories in hockey has nothing to do with fighting. It happened when the Penguins started to become relevant again in 2007. I attended the game at Mellon Arena against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and watched in amazement as Sidney Crosby dove to make an incredible goal at the end of the second period. I remember thinking to myself that I was watching a once-in-a-generation player. The Penguins lost that night 3-2 in a shootout on a beautiful Martin St. Louis goal. I remember almost everything about that hockey game. See the difference?
I'm sure Penguins' fans will remember the back-to-back debacles with the New York Islanders two years ago. The first game was chippy throughout. Max Talbot hit Blake Comeau with a clean check and knocked him out of the next four games with a concussion. The game featured a goalie fight at the end of the second period between Brent Johnson and Rick DiPietro, in which Johnson knocked out DiPietro with one punch. I remember sitting at home cheering for Johnson and being happy he "won" the fight. DiPietro suffered facial fractures and spent the next six weeks on injured reserve, after which he never regained his top-goaltending form. The ensuing game took place nine days later where the Islanders sought retribution for the Penguins’ supposed crimes. The sequel featured such memorable events as Islander Trevor Gillies elbowing Penguin Eric Tangradi in the head, knocking him out cold, and then continuing to punch him in the head as he lay on the ice. In total, there were 65 penalties assessed, 15 fighting majors, and 21 game misconducts, which totaled 346 penalty minutes. The Penguins finished the game with seven players left on their bench, to the Islanders’ nine. It was what some consider the best of the NHL on display - fighting, physical play, old-school hockey. The game was featured on all the major sports networks, receiving a ton of coverage for all the wrong reasons. You know how many new fans the Penguins or Islanders received from these two games? I am going to safely guess none.
The events of Sunday night stemmed from a routine fight between two players and escalated into an all-out brawl. If Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, John Tavares, or Phil Kessel were injured for any significant amount of time over events such as these, who loses? Not just the players themselves, but the NHL as a whole as well as its fans.
Now is the time for the NHL to step into the 21st century. It is time for the NHL to leave the old-school hockey where it should stay -- in the past. The game can still be played with an edge and be exciting with clean checks and physical play, without the knock-down drag-out fights. It is time for the league to protect its players and its brand by putting an end to meaningless injuries through meaningless fights. If teams want to change the momentum of a game, then do it with a big check or a highlight-reel goal. If someone like me, who greatly enjoyed the fighting, can change viewpoints, certainly others can too. It is time for the NHL to fight the good fight and ban fighting before they lose players and fans to senseless violence.