Whenever tragedy strikes or concerns for player safety have reached fever pitches, the calls for the NHL to ban fighting crescendo.
There was majority support for the NHL to enact "stricter penalties" for fighting after the death of Ontario AAA senior league defenseman Don Sanderson three years ago. There were questions asked after the late Bob Probert was diagnosed with CTE. The death of Derek Boogaard another other enforcers was used as a soapbox for anti-fighting advocates. Even Ralph Nader has made his feelings known.
Throughout all of those contentious calls has been one constant: NHL player support for fighting and opposition to an outright ban. This was reaffirmed in the latest NHLPA Players Poll, whose results were announced on CBC on Sunday (2011 results on top, then 2012):
Despite all the kvetching about fighting in the last year, support hasn't waned. In fact, with the "rats" are running wild in the NHL, support for getting rid of the instigator has risen, as we covered last week.
Why is there a disconnect between the players and the pundits?
From ESPN in December (insider content), 20 random NHL players were asked their opinion on fighting and whether it should be banned:
No. Period. 100 percent of the players -- Euros, North Americans, skilled stars and tough guys who need to brawl to earn a living in the league -- all agreed that they're in favor of keeping fighting in the game.
"It serves a valuable purpose to the game when used effectively and appropriately," one Southeastern skater said simply.
"It's part of hockey," one European skater said. "In my opinion, it's always good when it comes down to the emotions, when it's not a show. You understand that there's retaliation, that if somebody does something dumb, you kind of have to pay for it."
"Absolutely not," one enforcer responded. "It's a respect issue; it's been in the league since day one. The game would change dramatically if there was no fighting, and a lot of people wouldn't be coming to watch."
Twenty of 20 in that poll, and 98 percent of 318 players surveyed in the NHLPA/CBC poll. That's overwhelming support.
But it's been like this. Ten years ago, The Hockey News asked 30 players from 30 teams; one player, anonymously, supported a fighting ban. (From the Avalanche in 2002 ... hmmm ... smells like Steve Reinprecht.)
Of course, there's also the matter of absolutes; as in, the responses are going to go one way when "FIGHTING BAN" is the question but might look differently if the issue was, say, "STIFFER PENALTIES FOR STAGED FIGHTS." That's an important distinction to remember.
Also important: That NHL players are a stubborn lot when it comes to the League dictating behavior. Or have we missed the players association's agreement to make visors mandatory …
So there are considerations and caveats, but that doesn't undercut the support for fighting exhibited in this poll and previous ones.
But that support doesn't mean we're anywhere near the end of this debate. Because it's been raging for 20 years.
From the Chicago Tribune in 1992, a trip down pugilistic memory lane:
The compromise resulted in a new rule that will take effect next week when the NHL`s regular season opens. Players who are judged to have instigated a fight will be ejected from games. In the past, instigators simply were punished with two extra penalty minutes and returned to the game after serving their sentence in the penalty box.
There were 1,544 major fighting penalties called by referees last season, 203 of which were judged to have had an instigator. The percentage was similar in 1990-91, when 1,519 fighting penalties carried 217 instigation calls.
The NHL hopes the new rule will significantly reduce the total number of fights this season. But the intent is not to tamper with the so-called "spontaneous" fight that many consider a necessary deterrent to cheap-shot artists.
"I don't want to see the day when fighting is gone and someone who scores a goal is now subject to the intimidation of someone who has a stick and no fear that anybody is going to respond to him," New Jersey Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello said. "I do see fighting being reduced in the game, however. But much of that responsibility falls on the players. Once they decide it doesn't play that big a part in the game, then it won't."
Twenty years later, HockeyFights.com is projecting a total of 1,088 fighting majors (544 fights, times two) for the 2011-12 season.
The culture's changed, for sure. But fighting is still a vital part of it.