By Stu Hackel
Hockey is not a contact sport; it's a collision sport, and the biggest collision of the NHL season's first week occurred between the game's pro-fighting and anti-fighting factions. This always-simmering family feud perpetually sits one bad bout away from erupting, and a frightening, near-tragic Oct. 1 altercation between Montreal's George Parros and Toronto's Colton Orr -- in which Parros fell awkwardly to the ice face-first and suffered a concussion -- provided the latest spark.
This time, some unexpected and surprising voices helped pump up the volume. Four NHL general managers -- Tampa Bay's Steve Yzerman, Carolina's Jim Rutherford, Pittsburgh's Ray Shero and St. Louis' Doug Armstrong --said publicly it was time for the league to take a tougher stand against fighting, and their words were endorsed by retired coach Scotty Bowman, the greatest coach in NHL history.
Individual hockey executives had questioned the role of fighting before, but this collective sentiment was the most forceful statement ever, from within the league's establishment, on rethinking that part of the game.
"I believe a player should get a game misconduct for fighting," Yzerman told TSN's Darren Dreger. "We penalize and suspend players for making contact with the head while checking, in an effort to reduce head injuries, yet we still allow fighting. We're stuck in the middle and need to decide what kind of sport do we want to be. Either anything goes, and we accept the consequences, or take the next step and eliminate fighting."
"It won't happen overnight, but we need to be leaders, not followers in this area," added Shero, who helped lead the charge a few years ago against stronger penalties for headshots. "I respect other GMs and their views, but we need to look at this, and not just when an incident like last night [Parros] happens."
Rutherford was most blunt, telling Dreger, "We've got to get rid of fighting. It has to go." He called for an open and full discussion on additional penalties, such as a game misconduct for fighting, and significant suspensions for players who fight multiple times in a season.
"Player safety has to be at the forefront of our game moving forward," Armstrong said in a radio interview. "I understand the feeling that the 'rats' will overtake the game if fighting is away, but ... the players that are deemed predatory don't seem to fight that much anyway."
The "rats" Armstrong mentioned are a small segment of players, agitators who specialize in playing on the outer edges of the rulebook and beyond. They aim to distract and disrupt the opposition by doling out potentially injurious cheap shots, and when they are caught, they are sometimes penalized insufficiently. In the absence of harsher penalties, hockey's traditional vigilante justice -- fighting -- supposedly prevents the vermin from running wild. It's one major rationale for keeping it as part of the game among other GMs, and for most of the league's players.
"We'll play with a tennis ball before we take fighting out of the game," Vancouver defenseman Kevin Bieksa said last week, as the wave of anti-fighting sentiment swelled. Players around the league echoed Bieksa.
The pro-fighting faction long claimed the voices from the other side resided exclusively in the media. It's writers and broadcasters, they said, who make all the noise, while "real" hockey people recognize fighting's value. This week's statements by the GM quartet showed that the anti-fighting lobby is broader than was once believed, that things have changed -- although that could have been clear four years ago, when the GMs as a group voted to ban staged fights but could not get the players to agree. Of course, the medical community has also been an outspoken foe of fighting for a while, warning of the dangers posed by repeated blows to the head. As with climate change, hockey has its science-deniers, too.
Predictably, the gang of four GMs faced a backlash, especially Yzerman, a respected superstar during his playing career and now also general manager of Canada's Olympic team. Most vocal was retired enforcer Georges Laraque, once considered the NHL's top fighter, for whom Yzerman's words were a betrayal to the hockey family, tantamount to treason.
"Steve Yzerman played in Detroit, where Bob Probert and Joey Kocur were there," Laraque told CBC Radio in Hamilton, Ontario. "They were the toughest guys in the NHL. Because of them, Steve Yzerman had all the room he needed to be a successful player. [They] put him on the road to the Hall of Fame, and he's spitting on that job. He's spitting on them, saying, 'Thank you very much, now I'm a Hall of Famer, let's take fighting out of the game.' Not recognizing what those guys [did] for him."
Forgotten in this overheated atmosphere is that Probert, who died at 45 of heart failure, was subsequently diagnosed as suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative neurological disease. Yzerman delivered the eulogy at Probert's funeral. CTE is the same sort of brain trauma found in a number of deceased former football players, believed to be caused by multiple concussions. This may be the price that frequent fighters pay for defending their teammates. That they do it willingly, mindful of the potential consequences, is beyond admirable; it is also beyond troubling.
The debate on fighting remained hockey's hot topic into the weekend. Then talk shifted to more mundane matters. It will, no doubt, reemerge when GMs meet next month for their annual autumn gathering, perhaps earlier should we witness another sickening incident.
The triggering fight itself came with considerable subtext. First, Parros and Orr, who have nearly 300 NHL fighting majors combined, had grappled before -- not just earlier in the game, but also in January 2011, when Parros was with Anaheim. In that one, Orr suffered a season-ending concussion, when Parros caught him with a right and Orr went face down into the ice. Last February, Orr sought a rematch, and they danced again in a free-swinging extravaganza when Parros was a member of the Florida Panthers. One never sensed any animosity between them, however; just two heavyweights doing their jobs.
This summer, Canadiens sought a heavyweight and signed Parros as a free agent, to considerable fanfare. Their last experiment with a professional enforcer was with Georges Laraque -- and it ended badly. He seemed to lose the taste for combat after Montreal signed him in 2008 and, suffering back problems, proved largely ineffective. He was dropped by the team after sporadic appearances over a season and a half, and then he retired, although he remains a vocal defender of fighting.
Still, the team and many of their fans grew weary of seeing les Glorieux, overpopulated by smaller, skilled players, getting bullied, especially by hated division rivals like the Leafs and Boston Bruins. Parros -- whom Sean Gordon in The Globe and Mail accurately described as a "lushly mustachioed, nasty-looking galoot," and who is also a Princeton graduate -- was wooed to be Montreal's new nuclear deterrent.
Opening night arrived with the hockey world still buzzing about the wild preseason brawl between Toronto and Buffalo on Sept. 22, an embarrassing carnival of bullying, stick chopping, a concussion and broken jaw and general loss of decorum, resulting in obligatory suspensions and fines.
Then came the Oct. 1 incident. With Toronto leading the Canadiens 3-2 early in the third period, Parros -- performing well as a hard-checking fourth-liner -- stepped in when Orr started abusing P.K. Subban, Montreal's top defenseman. The two began throwing punches, then Orr lost balance, his legs going out from under him. But he had a hold on Parros' jersey, and as Parros swung his right, only to find air, the combination of Orr pulling him down and Parros' own momentum propelled him uncontrollably over the falling Orr. Parros landed chin-first on the ice, briefly knocked unconscious.
A frightened Orr stood up and motioned for medical assistance. The Bell Centre, hockey's largest and loudest arena, went silent. Parros was stretchered off the ice. He spent the night in the hospital and then was released. He's expected to rejoin the Canadiens as soon as he's medically cleared to return.
"It's scary," Orr said afterward. "The ice isn't going to give." He knows that well.
Here's how it looked on CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada" national telecast:
Watching the medics work on him, Hockey Night's Craig Simpson said during the telecast, "For those who are saying, 'Fighting, get it out of the game,' these are the moments why."
Play-by-play announcer Jim Hughson agreed, "Yeah, it all seems wildly entertaining, until something like this happens," adding that incidents like this are partly why the NHL added a new rule prohibiting players from removing their helmets before they fight. (Parros was wearing his, but only a full face shield would have prevented his injury.)
The third announcer, Glenn Healy, reminded viewers of Don Sanderson's death in 2009 in an Ontario senior amateur league game. The 21-year-old Sanderson's helmet came off during a fight, and he cracked his skull on the ice as he and his opponent both fell while grappling. "And if that happens in this game, the National Hockey League," Healy said, "fighting will be gone from the game."
"So I guess you ask, Glenn, why does it need to happen for that to happen?" Simpson wondered aloud.
"It's a great debate," Healy said, and from that moment, over the airwaves, in newspapers, on blogs, websites and Twitter -- and probably over the cell phones of numerous hockey executives and players -- the debate took off again throughout North America, with all the conflicting truths and half-truths about why the game needs fighting and why it would be a better sport without it.
Does all this mean a fundamental change on fighting is imminent? Probably not. As TSN 690's Mitch Melnick, host of Montreal's top sports talk radio program, wrote on his blog after watching Parros get carted off, "Fighting in the NHL is kind of like Canada's version of the gun lobby in the U.S. It's way too entrenched to be outlawed." The question for hockey becomes, is change even possible? Are hockey's bickering factions stalemated here?
The NHL itself has yet to even plot a way to approach the issue. While fighting regularly is discussed among owners and managers, there's no indication that the league has a clear direction on how to treat fighting, never mind scheduling talks with the NHLPA. The statements by the four general managers could mark the start of that process. It might take some time, as did the road to adopting stronger rules against head contact, but in a league increasingly cognizant of player safety, if some unity of vision on fighting is achieved, we could be at a turning point.
There's one other possibility, that legal action -- or the threat of it -- will intervene and accelerate things. The recent $765 million NFL settlement with its players on concussions and brain trauma is known to concern hockey people, who wonder about the NHL's exposure to something similar. If the league has recognized the dangers of bodychecks to the head and created tougher rules against them, some lawyer is bound to think, "Doesn't this indicate they should also be aware of the dangers posed by bare knuckles thrown to the head?"
At that point, cold legal and business realities could trump any tradition, any fan or player preference, any moral arguments one way or the other and put a swift end to this family feud.
The former NHL director of broadcasting, publishing and video, Stu Hackel has written about hockey for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, SI.com, The Hockey News, The (Montreal) Gazette, Goal magazine andThe Village Voice. He wrote his first hockey stories nearly 50 years ago when he published a newsletter for the Gump Worsley Fan Club.