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There’s no middle ground in NHL fighting debate

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Frazer McLaren knocked out David Dziurzynski in a staged NHL fight on Wednesday night, diverting the hockey world’s attention from the visor debate – and what an intense 24 hours that was – and back onto the fundamental civil war among hockey fans and pundits: The Fighting Debate.

Here’s where I am on fighting, as an issue of player safety: You can’t be “a little pregnant”, you can’t have a “mild concussion” and you can’t crucify the existence of one type of fighting for its dangers while endorsing – either implicit or explicitly – another more seemingly valorous brand of fisticuffs.

Enough with the selective dread.

I’m an across-the-board, card carrying Neanderthal on fighting. I appreciate its value as a tactic. I understand its necessity as a deterrent or a steam value for aggression in this violent game. I acknowledge, without remorse, that it’s a barbarous form of entertainment that frequently enhances my enjoyment of the NHL. I like spontaneous fights more than staged fights, but I refuse to take out my scalpel and surgically remove one from the other. It’s all fists to faces, knuckles to brains, two players volunteering to endure between 20 and 60 seconds of inhumane punishment for the sake of sport.

[Related: Swiss player paralyzed after hit into boards]

But over the decades, many conflicted hockey fans have attempted to add nuance to the fighting debate. They enjoy it, understand its “place in the game” and don’t want to align themselves with the pacifist masses that clutch the pearls when the gloves are dropped because they saw Chris Nowinski talk about CTE on CBC.

But it’s those staged fights they find abhorrent, that have no place in the game and that are going to get someone killed one day.

The more purposeful integrity the fight has, the less concern for player safety we're supposed to have, I guess.

We get columns like the one from Joe DeLessio of Sports On Earth in January, writing:

“Those of us who believe fighting has a place in the game, as dangerous as it may be, can find ways to justify most fights. But that can't be said about staged fights. They're a different animal, and need to be treated as such.”

And in the wake of Dziurzynski’s KO, we get columns like this one from Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com:

… If they’re not hitting harder, we are certainly more aware now about head injuries and the long-term health risks involved. That in itself should be enough to get everyone thinking more about this. And, from a society standpoint, we’ve become less tolerant of these kinds of violent acts. Our appetite for this kind of thing has changed.

I mean, I could barely bring myself to watch rest of that Senators-Leafs game Wednesday night I was so sickened by that fight.

And yet, from the other side of his mouth:

I’m not here to suggest a fight can’t swing the momentum of a game. Jarome Iginla and Vincent Lecavalier swinging fists in the 2004 Stanley Cup finals was a thrilling moment and I was there to cover it. Those are emotional bouts that are part of the fabric of the game.

Again: If your beef with staged fights is “head injuries and long-term health risks,” then your beef is with fighting.

The notion that one fight is acceptable while another isn’t within the context of player safety is illogical.

Yes, sure, end the brawls to start games, or the “staged fights” between designated brawlers. Do it with some sort of system of fines or limits on frequency of fighting like in the OHL. Do it in the name of player safety; and then when a spontaneous fight between two middleweights produces a Dziurzynskian knockout and concussion, explain away your lack of vehement protest by claiming one fight has “a place in the game” while the other doesn’t.

As if any “head injuries and long-term health risks” through nearly superfluous conduct can be categorized as either valorous or loathsome. It's all a risk.

[Related: Sens' Dziurzynski KO'd by Leafs' McLaren in first-minute scrap]

This is why, while I completely disagree with them, the pacifists that claim fighting has no place in the NHL get more respect from me on the issue. They plant their player safety flag and defend their unwavering views. No “this concussion is OK, but this one shouldn’t have happened” contortionism.

As for the fence-sitters, there is an argument to be made against staged fights, and it’s a public perception one: That the more sideshow fighting the NHL features, the less likely it is that casual sports fans will fall in love with the game.

That fighting is, and has been, repellent to both fans and media. That it’s an image problem for hockey. That Frazer McLaren knocking out David Dziurzynski does nothing but tarnish that image, and even repels fans that otherwise celebrate fighting.

LeBrun argues that image issue, for sure, but has to dress it up as a player safety issue too, and that’s where he and other fighting critics lose me.

If your concern is how the NHL is perceived as the only professional team sport that quasi-endorses fighting, take your run at the virtues of staged fights, by all means.

If your concern is that “one day a player isn’t going to recover from one of these punches,” then we’re back at the epicenter of conflict for everyone in hockey with a scintilla of concern for the players’ safety:

How does one square all of the measures taken by the NHL out of concern for brain injury with the fact that fighting is allowed to thrive? How can we claim, as a sport, that concussions need to be dramatically reduced and yet only flimsily penalize those who fight?

How does one square feeling that a punch could end a player’s career, but that some punches are more acceptable than others?

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