Everybody knows that fighting is down across the NHL and that’s the way the league really wants it to be.
With greater scrutiny on the NHL because of concussions and their connection to the contact sport, the NHL is trying to show they’re doing everything within their power to lessen blows to the head. One of the easiest ways to do that is to A) create rules that make it more difficult for orchestrated fights to happen and B) to foster an environment where there isn’t a need for the classic enforcers around the league.
The penalties for players instigating fights with visors or for taking their helmets off have been effective tools for the league in helping to weed out some of the orchestrated fights at center ice that nobody really seemed to enjoy.
Last season, the NHL saw 344 total fighting majors in the regular season, which was actually three fewer fighting infractions than in the shortened, 48-game lockout schedule in 2012-13.
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Clearly, the league accomplished both its goals to drive fighting down without out-and-out banning fights. Time will ultimately be the judge as to whether this was a good thing for hockey or ultimately a tipping point that drove away diehard fans who no longer recognized the beautiful, violent game they once loved.
The sense from this humble hockey writer is that the NHL is watering down their product, neutering it beyond recognition to their diehard fans and in serious danger of losing what’s always made the league unique. The speed-and-skill game is certainly a beautiful part of hockey, but the NHL won’t be able to protect the players bringing those qualities if fighting and retribution for dirty hits no longer exist.
In the league’s zeal to stamp fighting out without outlawing it, they’ve gone too far with the actions of linesmen in games this season. It’s been obvious to the casual observer that linesmen are stepping in far too quickly to break up fights that are organically happening on the ice. We’ve now seen this in two consecutive Bruins games. The first was notable, if harmless, with Adam McQuaid and Josh Anderson getting separated in the Bruins/Blue Jackets game on Tuesday night when it was clear both players were willing combatants during a heavy, physical game.
That was bad enough given how the on-ice officials were interfering with the natural flow of the game.
But the actions of linesmen Mark Shewchyk and Greg Devorski Thursday night in a 4-2 win for the Bruins over the Buffalo Sabres were ineffective, ill-conceived, poorly executed and worst of all dangerous to everybody involved on the ice. William Carrier had knocked David Backes out of the game in the first period with a blindside hit that had some head contact, so he knew something was coming from the Bruins on a subsequent shift once officials stepped in and didn’t allow Kevan Miller to respond immediately.
So, McQuaid stepped in on an ensuing shift and did what he always does: stood up for his teammate.
McQuaid and Carrier both dropped the gloves and were about to willingly handle things in the honest, time-honored hockey tradition of “answering the bell” when Shewchyk and Devorski forced their way into the middle of it. They bumbled their way through breaking up the fracas and it all ended with McQuaid bloodied after taking several shots to the face as Devorski locked down his arms and took away any chance the B’s defenseman had to defend himself.
Shewchyk was simply overpowered by Carrier and couldn’t stop the Buffalo forward from wildly swinging and connecting on McQuaid multiple times. McQuaid was incensed at the actions of the two linesmen after things settled down and nobody could blame him after they went way over the line trying to extinguish a hockey fight that absolutely should have happened.
To add insult to injury, McQuaid was called for an instigator penalty in a “fight” that the linesmen never actually allowed to organically happen in the first place. Instead, McQuaid was slapped with a penalty after he was fed right-handed punches that busted his face open as officials held him back.
McQuaid needed stitches to his face and Carrier suffered some kind of injury to his hand in the embarrassing, dangerous sequence that should serve as a learning moment for the on-ice officials.
On-ice officials need to take a step back when two willing combatants are engaged for legitimate reasons, and show they have an actual feel for the game that they’re officiating. A failure to do so could lead to avoidable injuries to the players they’re trying to protect, or to the linesmen while players are wildly throwing punches at each other in those situations.
“It can be dangerous, but hopefully somebody will deal with it and make it better for next time,” said Claude Julien after the game. “I respect the job they do. Certainly, those linesmen are never rewarded enough. … I’m sure they’ll approach that situation and talk about it and fix it so it doesn’t create a dangerous situation like it did.”
One can argue whether the outlawing of fights from the NHL is a good thing or a bad thing, but this trend of linesmen stepping in far too early to break things up needs to end.
Fighting is down and the league has what it wants with the staged fighting just a relic of the recent NHL past at this point. But somebody is going to get seriously hurt with the way on-ice officials are haphazardly stepping in between NHL heavyweights about to collide with their fists. It needs to stop for the sake of safety for both the officials and the willing combatants involved.