Fighting in hockey has always seemed like the beer frame in bowling. It's not what the game is about, but you kind of look forward to it. If it were outlawed, the game would continue, but maybe it wouldn't be as much fun. In the case of hockey, that would mean nothing to watch except . . . hockey. In the case of bowling . . . Diet Coke.
It's not considered that big a deal and the reformers have grown a little tiresome on the subject, and the hockey leagues have always had enough fight proponents in important positions to fend off any real change.
So on it goes, and everything is fun and games until there's a guy having a seizure on the ice.
That's what happened Friday night in the Wachovia Spectrum, when Garrett Klotz of the Phantoms and Kevin Westgarth of the Manchester Monarchs fought just seconds after the opening face-off, a pair of 6-foot-5 heavyweight forwards who lost their helmets and began smacking each other in the head.
Westgarth got in the best shots, and Klotz went down hard, and that would have been that, except that his legs began to convulse and his eyes rolled back into his head and he remained on the ice for 10 minutes as the medical staff tried to keep him from dying right there.
It could have happened that way. A 21-year-old in the Ontario Hockey Association died Jan. 2 as a result of fight-related injuries sustained last month. All the reformers clucked their tongues, and the OHA imposed penalties for players who removed their own helmets or someone else's while fighting.
Klotz didn't die, though. He was stabilized and spent the night at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He came out of it with no fractures, just a mess of cuts on his face. Part of the job.
"It's a scary ordeal," said Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren. "But he's going to be fine."
No disrespect intended, but how does he know that? A guy suffers a seizure after being banged around by another guy's fists and crumpling to the ice, and he's definitely going to be fine? Maybe, but maybe not.
The story made its way to Montreal, of course, where the NHL was preparing for last night's All-Star Game, and the usual people said the usual things. A discussion of fighting is scheduled for the general managers' meetings in March, but there doesn't appear to be much sentiment to change the way things are. There are basically two arguments for that point of view, and they haven't changed: Fighting is a necessary counterbalance to keep cheap-shot artists from injuring people, and, perhaps more important, fans like it.
"If we [remove fighting], we cannot create a safe workplace for our players," Toronto general manager Brian Burke said.
And, he added, if fighting were eliminated, "no one will come out and watch."
Burke said that when the subject comes up at the GMs' meeting, "it will be a short conversation."
The argument that having people beat each other senseless is what keeps the game safe is way too Canadian to unravel, so we'll have to take Burke at his word. He doesn't explain why the NHL's postseason, which is the best hockey of the year, doesn't have that many fights. Or why the international game, particularly the Olympics, can produce such spectacular hockey without the need to scrape blood off the ice.
It just is that way, and the real reason it remains that way gets back to the second half of the pro-fighting argument: The cash register might not ring if fighting disappears. They don't trust that the game itself is good enough to keep fans coming back.
"I believe that most of our fans enjoy that aspect of the game," said commissioner Gary Bettman.
That doesn't make them bad people, but you have to wonder why the sport of boxing is dying if watching guys mash each other's faces is so popular. Maybe if boxing made them fight bare-knuckled, wearing five sweaters and maneuvering on skates, business would improve. Worth a try.
The problem in hockey isn't the occasional fight that grows naturally from a violent environment. It is the institutional encouragement of those fights. If the penalties and fines were stiffer, there would be fewer fights. If the teams didn't hire cheap-shot artists, there would be less need for the goons.
Take a look at Friday's fight at the Spectrum, which was apparently a carryover from a game between the teams 10 weeks ago. Can you explain why two enforcers were on the ice for the opening draw? Only one reason. They were going to fight as soon as the puck dropped, and that's exactly what they did. But they didn't put themselves out on the ice. The coaches did that.
What happened next wasn't a case of tempers flaring during the heat of competition. It was a scheduled bout. For something like that, they should just advertise it and hold it between periods as an added attraction. Let the Zamboni clean up the blood and move on.
Otherwise, people might be at the concession stand, and would miss it, and no one likes to miss either a good fight or the beer frame.
Is there a place for fighting in hockey?
1. Yes. It is part of the game.
2. No. The days of the Broad Street Bullies are over.
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