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Haggerty: Banning fights not the answer for NHL

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Haggerty: Banning fights not the answer for NHL

WINNIPEG Any attempt to clean concussions out of the NHL and the sport of ice hockey is surely an admirable venture.

Two summers ago when NHL tough guys Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak all died of apparent suicides, it became disturbingly easy to link connections between hockey fighting, the chronic brain swelling now being found in medical studies of pro athletes that take too many concussive blows to the head, and potentially dangerous mental illness.

There has been clamoring to outlaw hockey fighting because it was clearly turning NHL players into the ticking human time bombs that have become all-too familiar in the NFL over the past few tragic years.

It was part of the thesis for a Boston Globe column by Chris Gasper last week calling for fighting to be banned in the NHL. It also rekindled the issue in the city of Boston where hockey fighters are celebrated cult heroes and the big, bad style of old time hockey is still respected, revered and fully understood. But a funny thing has happened to the Chicken Little element of the hockey world looking to outlaw hockey fighting as the last two years have unfolded: Things didnt get worse, and instead its starting to look like those three fatal incidents were more coincidental than troubling trend.

Fighting is up over 20 percent in the NHL this season from last year, and both the usage of the Quiet Room and the mandatory 7-10 days out of the lineup instituted by the league after a diagnosed concussion are methods that are working.

Concussions are up across the NHL from 10 years ago, but in a strange way thats a good thing. It means concussions are being more accurately reported and treated with a gravity that perhaps wasnt present among all NHL medical staffs in the he had his bell rung mentality of NHL yesteryear.

The Shawn Thornton incident from a couple of weeks ago might be perhaps the perfect example of the NHL concussion protocol working in the proper way. Thornton was dinged up in a one-sided brawl with 6-foot-8 monster John Scott to the point the Bruins enforcer entered the penalty box asking NHL officials if hed just been in a fight.

That was seconds after scraping himself up off the ice, and was the first clear indicator hed suffered a concussion.

It was the first diagnosed concussion for Thornton during his six years filling the enforcer role for the Black and Gold, and that includes 87 fights since the winger first signed with Boston prior to the 2007-08 campaign. He sat out his 10 days and then returned without any lingering issues or symptoms, and he hasnt experienced any complications afterward as a 35-year-old enforcer playing in a young mans game.

Thornton rightfully gets indignant when anybody uses a single incident of a concussion in a brawl between experienced fighters to ignite the argument that fighting should be eliminated from the NHL.

"I don't like when people try and take advantage of the situation," said Thornton to CSNNE.com more than a week ago while still recovering from his concussion. "It's part of their agenda. There's fighting in hockey. It's in the game. I think it's a necessary part of the game. I don't think it's going anywhere, so there's no point in really even dwelling on it.

I'm a big boy. I know what I'm getting into."

Here are the facts about hockey fights in the NHL: They account for less than 10 percent of all concussions in the NHL and are not even close to the biggest cause of head injuries in hockey. In a study done 10 years ago by the NHL it was found that centers were twice as likely to suffer concussions as defensemen and forwards. By and large, these are not the fighters, the enforcers, the goons.

The centers are the talented, playmakers in the NHL that are skating in the danger zone areas in the middle of the ice, and sport a natural target on their backs given that theyre typically the most skilled players on the ice.

So outlawing hockey fighting is doing next-to-nothing to solve the concussion problem in the NHL, and would instead simply do the opposite it. The banning of hockey fights would be exacerbating the concussion problem. The dangerous faction of NHL players like Matt Cooke and Raffi Torres -- who seem to pop up at least once or twice a season in regrettable plays that lead to other players getting injured -- would act with more frequency and impunity. The lack of accountability by force would also multiply the number of Cooke-type characters in the league, and thats not a good thing.

Suddenly instead of every team employing an NHL enforcer to keep the peace, each team would be forced to employ a certifiable NHL rat, constantly flirting with going over the line and hurting fellow players. Outlawing fighting would have the opposite intended effect, and it could very well turn hockey into something much more like the NFL: a place where predatory players roam free and engineer dangerous hits on unprotected, vulnerable opponents.

Hockey is the only sport where players have a actual weapon in their hands during play. Sticks can damage eyes and snap wrist bones like twigs. Hockey is also the only major pro sport where there is no out of bounds or foul territory if a player is targeted on the ice.

No matter how much pundits would like to say the NHL needs to get rid of fighting and conform to the other big three sports, hockey will always be its own entity because of its nuances.

If any altruistic soul truly wants to rid the NHL of concussions or at least lessen them significantly there are some pretty simple steps to follow.

First, the NHL would need to reduce the size of elbow and shoulder pads -- as well as the hard material used to make them -- that currently make hockey players look like knights from King Arthurs Round Table. The risk of injuring yourself would reduce the reckless abandon used on the ice.

Second, the NHL needs to reinstitute the red line to help slow down the action: higher skating speeds, combined with the size and strength of this generations hockey players contributes greatly to head injuries on plays that used to be routine in old time hockey.

Third, NHL referees need to allow interferenceobstruction away from the puck. Defensemen formerly used this technique to slow down fore-checkers that were looking to pick up a head of steam before they blasted the puck-retrieving defenseman behind the net. Players were allowed to use their bodies to get in the way and slow down attackers prior to the 2004-05 lockout, and hence the NHL game became much faster and more dangerous after that work stoppage.

Of course these changes would probably lead to more shoulder and elbow injuries for NHL players, and they would certainly slow down a brand of hockey thats become fast, exciting and attractive in the eight years since the rules were changed.

The question becomes whats more important: making changes that might improve the safety of NHL players, or leaving things at the status quo. But those that think eliminating hockey fights is the panacea hockey has been searching for in reducing the NHL's concussion problem are taking the very short-sighted view of a massive, complex, all-encompassing issue.

NHL hockey a contact sport that will always have some level of risk and danger associated with it, and thats what the players signed up for when they started playing the game as children.

Bruins get a needed boost from young players in win over Sharks

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Bruins get a needed boost from young players in win over Sharks

Here’s what we learned from the Bruins' 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks at the SAP Center on Saturday night, which gave Boston four of a possible six points in its California road swing.
 
1) The kids stepped up at a great time for the Bruins. Boston needed some young players to step up and fill in for the injured veterans up front, and they got it on Saturday night. Jake DeBrusk was the main playmaker on both goals in the first period, and the Bruins got goals from rookies DeBrusk, Peter Cehlarik and Danton Heinen. It was Cehlarik’s first NHL goal and the 10th point of the season for Heinen, who continues to show signs that he is going to be a productive, reliable winger  even though he didn’t start the season at the NHL level. DeBrusk finished with a goal and an assist and twice used his speed and aggressiveness taking the puck to the net to create scoring chances: On the first goal it was Cehlarik who finished the loose puck after DeBrusk’s net drive created a rebound, and on the second it was DeBrusk simply beating reigning Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns to a race for the puck and then snapping it up and over San Jose backup goalie Aaron Dell. Cehlarik became the sixth Bruins rookie to score the first goal of his NHL career with Boston this season, and it all shows tangible results of the youth movement they were fully embracing this season. There will be peaks and valleys with so many young players in the lineup, but Saturday night turned out to be one of those high-water marks.

2)  At their healthiest, the Bruins can be a fast-skating, skilled team that will be equal parts offense and defense in a hard-working style that features pace and creativity in the offensive zone. The Bruins aren't healthy right now, obviously, and aren’t going to find success that way as attested by the fact that they hadn’t won two games in a row this season until Saturday night in San Jose. With a number of players already out of the lineup, Torey Krug now injured as well and Tuukka Rask taking an extended rest in favor of a red-hot Anton Khudobin, the Bruins are actually playing a very different brand of hockey right now. With Rask not playing -- and not allowing the types of bad or soft goals he's given up so far this year -- they can play a little more conservatively and try to make a two- or three-goal output in a game actually stick as the game-winning margin. Just check the box score,  as the Bruins blocked a whopping 30 shots and conversely the Sharks blocked just 12. Zdeno Chara, Kevan Miller and Robbie O’Gara all had blocked shots in the final few minutes, and Brandon Carlo stepped in front of a wide-open chance for Burns in the third period off a clean offensive zone faceoff win for the Sharks. Those are all gritty, tough plays in the D-zone that you don’t always see, and it perhaps comes a little more naturally when the Bruins are making the clear choice to feature their defense and goaltending right now. It may not be sustainable once Anton Khudobin inevitably cools off a little bit, but for now it’s pretty darn effective.


 
3)  After watching him stop 36 of 37 shots for the win on Saturday night, the Bruins need to see this thing through with Khudobin until he loses a game. Khudobin is 5-0-2 with this season, with a .949 save percentage in three appearances in November. He's playing the best he's played in the last couple of years. Right now Khudobin is actually leading the NHL with a .935 save percentage for the season, and that really contrasts to Rask's .897 save percentage. Certainly part of it is about the Bruins selling out defensively in front of him and blocking 30 shots in the win while knowing they didn’t have to play again until Wednesday night. But it’s also about the Bruins backup goaltender playing himself into a position where the B’s should ride him until he cools down a little bit, and give Rask some more time to figure out what is slowing him down between the pipes right now.
 
PLUS
-- DeBrusk made a couple of big plays in the first period that led to goals for the Bruins, and he finished with a goal, two points, a plus-2 and a team-high four shots on net in 15:49 of ice time. He has a goal and three points in three games since being a healthy scratch last weekend against Toronto.
 
--Khudobin made 16 saves in the first period when the Bruins were outshot 17-5 and it certainly seemed like they were going to get run out of the building. Instead Khudobin stood tall.
 
-- Heinen finished with two goals and three points on the three-game trip and iced the game for the Bruins with a backdoor strike in the third period after Kevan Miller had dashed up the right side of the ice to create the chance. Heinen is pushing up near the Bruins team leaders in some offensive categories and looks like he belongs in the NHL this season.
 
MINUS
-- Burns was burnt on each of the Bruins' two first-period goals, he actually missed the net with 12 of his 16 shot attempts, and he had seven giveaways in a pretty sloppy game managing the puck. Burns hasn’t had a great season to date, and Saturday night was a good example of things not going well for him this year.
 
-- Paul Postma finished with just eight minutes of ice time in the win, and was part of the poor defensive coverage on the Sharks goal by Joonas Donskoi in the first period that ended up getting overturned on video review. Postma didn’t show much else after that only playing a handful of minutes over the remainder of the game, and based on his early performance looks like he’s only going to be a seventh defensemen in Boston.
 
-- Here’s a hearty boo to the 10:30 pm West Coast starts on Saturday night that only the diehards, or those getting paid, are going to closely watch on the weekend leading up to Thanksgiving. Congrats to you if you were one of the lucky ones that decided to stay up and watch a game that didn’t end until after 1 a.m. in the East.  

Morning Skate: Payroll mess at the heart of Bruins' problems

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Morning Skate: Payroll mess at the heart of Bruins' problems

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while battening down the hatches for Thanksgiving week.
 
-- When longtime Bruins follower Clark Booth opines about the Black and Gold, I tend to listen. And he's not happy with the Bruins' salary cap situation at this point in time. It should be noted that this was written before they won the last two games. But some of those truths still remain self-evident when it comes to the B’s.

-- Kevin Bieksa will never stop talking about former teammate Rick Rypien, or about the factors that ultimately led to his tragic passing.
 
-- Alex Ovechkin is truly living up to the “Russian Machine Never Breaks” mantra these days, which led to the creation of an entire blog about the Capitals.
 
-- This Saturday Night Live skit with Chance the Rapper playing a clueless hockey reporter was funny, even to people that have been covering the league for 20 years and still struggle to pronounce a name like Brady Skjei.
 
-- The good, the bad and the ugly courtesy of FOH (Friend of Haggs) Mitch Melnick from last night’s Montreal blowout loss to the Maple Leafs that probably could have just been called the ugly, the ugly and the ugly.
 
-- It’s 20 games into the season, and the Buffalo Sabres media are wondering what’s wrong with their team, and star Jack Eichel.
 
-- For something completely different: It sounds like some of the NFL rank-and-file players want to know why Roger Goodell deserves $50 million and a lifetime private plane.