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Rangers, Devils brawl puts the staged fighting debate back into spotlight

Greg Wyshynski
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AP

Ryan Carter of the New Jersey Devils said New York Rangers defenseman Stu Bickel asked him to fight before the puck was dropped for their Monday night game at Madison Square Garden. But as he told Fire & Ice, the request was unnecessary.

"I think the gesture of moving a D-man up to take the opening faceoff says something about that," he said.

As did the gesture from Devils coach Pete DeBoer, who started noted skills players Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen with Carter, and watched as a trio of fights broke out just three seconds into their game:

As did the gesture from Rangers coach John Tortorella back on Dec. 20, 2011, when he started Michael Rupp and Brandon Prust and watched as Rupp and Janssen dropped their gloves three seconds into a game in New Jersey. Then on Feb. 7, Prust, Boulton, Janssen and Rupp all fought just two seconds into the game.

(Pity those poor bastards who decided to wait on the beer line rather than catch the opening draw.)

Via Rangers Rants, the coaches had some disagreements about tactics last night:

Tortorella took the opportunity to yell curses at DeBoer across the benches before the game, though Tortorella, ignoring the TV cameras that caught him, denied it and DeBoer would not comment on it.

"I guess in John's world you can come into our building and start your tough guys, but we can't do the same in here. He's either got short-term memory loss or he's a hypocrite. So it's one or the other," DeBoer said.

"It was what it was," DeBoer added about being yelled at. "Both teams did their thing and we played the game. It was a hard fought game. I'm not here to analyze it any deeper than that."

"It's none of my business," Tortorella said about DeBoer's choice of a starting lineup. "I don't coach that team. I do what I have to do with my team, I don't coach his team so it's none of my business. I didn't put the starting lineup in as far as the visiting coach, I'm not going to comment on other stuff."

Except he did, inside the Rangers dressing room before the game, according to Henrik Lundqvist. In fact, the New York goalie said that Tortorella's anger over his foe's lineup fired up the team.

What all of this means that, in some way, the staged fight — or the threat of one — changed the dynamic of this game, and potentially subsequent ones. It may not have resulted in an obvious tactical advantage for either side — Rupp said it didn't shift momentum — but it played on the minds of the players and coaches.

For the fans … well, anyone within eye-shot of social media on Monday night saw people buzzing about the triple-header brawl to open the game on NBC Sports Network.

Yet what this all leads back to, however, is whether there's a place in the NHL for staged fights, despite their bloody appeal.

The protests against staged fights don't just come from the usual pacifist corners of the media and fandom. It's fighting advocates, such as Dave Hodge from TSN, that are out front on bemoaning the displays we saw last night. From a Feb. 2012 column:

If I were inclined to do so, I would argue for fights as "part of the game" by trying to get rid of fights that aren't.

How to do that? Well, apparently the NHL can't get past the Players' Association, and the coaches are in favour of the choreography or they'd fill out their lineup sheets differently.

Still, dealing with the coaches can be done, as in the $10,000 fines they get if their player instigates a late-game fight. No reason the same couldn't apply to "staged" fights.

Bob Boughner, in arguing against the elimination of fighting in junior hockey, said: "I agree there's no reason for staged fighting, but I do believe in good, clean, physical, hard-nosed hockey and if fights happen, they happen."

Bruce Ciskie of SB Nation, another fighting fan otherwise, felt that the scene between the Rangers and Devils on Monday prevents the NHL from evolving:

In this era of increased player safety, the NHL can ill afford to ignore the opportunity to take another step toward that goal. It isn't the case now, but you can bet that if Gary Bettman and his people get their way, the day will come where players who engage in obviously premeditated fights -- Monday clearly applies -- are subjected to ejections and possible suspensions once they are repeat offenders of the rule.

It doesn't eliminate fighting. Player X can still be asked to answer for his illegal hit on Team B's best player. Or, as we see quite often in this league, Player X can be asked to answer for an absolutely clean hit on Team B's best player. But Player Y doesn't get to break up a (to that point) cleanly-played game by fighting Player Z's designated fighter, just for kicks. There's no need for it when we're supposed to be worried about player safety.

From Pierre LeBrun of ESPN, in today's Daily Debate:

I have zero appetite for that kind of stuff anymore. Anyone who thinks that line brawl had any effect on the final outcome of the game is dreaming. And I can tell you the NHL brass is not keen on it, either. There's not much the league can do much about it now other than perhaps a warning. You might remember the league's 30 GMs tried to push through a new rule on staged fights a couple of years ago but it was thwarted by the NHL Players' Association via the competition committee. I would predict the league and players will discuss this issue again come next summer via CBA talks.

LeBrun quotes Colin Campbell of the NHL: "If the GMs find this (line brawl last night) unacceptable, maybe we'd craft it the same way at the start of the game, put the onus on both the player and the coach? Or you'd have to find a current interpretation of the rulebook."

Three years ago, the NHL's general managers were considering a measure that would have upped the consequences for staged fights. From Dan Rosen of NHL.com in 2009:

Campbell confirmed that the League will propose a rule change to the Competition Committee regarding "staged" fights. The League wants a stiffer penalty for players who fight directly off a faceoff, which they determined that in most instances is a staged fight.

Instead of receiving the normal 5-minute major, the proposal is to tack on a 10-minute misconduct penalty to anybody who fights off a faceoff in hopes the stiffer result will begin to phase staged fights out of the game.

The NHLPA, however, wouldn't support the measure.

In 2010, the OHL passed a rule in which any fighter off the faceoff will be given a game misconduct and a $100 fine, with repeat offenders given stiffer penalties.

Staged fights weren't top of the mind at the recent GM Meetings, but fighting is always a topic bubbling right near the surface.

The fact is that while the display between the Devils and Rangers last night was entertaining and created a buzz among fans — not to mention its ripples felt from the dressing rooms to the benches — there's been a growing segment of the NHL that would sacrifice staged fights at the altar of player safety, in some cases to appease critics so fighting as a whole remains in the game.

(This is akin to Trey Parker and Matt Stone putting a joke they know will make the MPAA vomit into a film just to get it cut.)

Again: Even if something like last night's three-way dance invigorated the Rangers.

For me, I dig staged fights. But I'm a Neanderthal. I also believe that policing them is problematic: What if the six Devils and Rangers simply waited until the 1-minute mark? Does that still fall under the umbrella of staging? (OK, as if any of these guys would pull a 1-minute shift.)

What do you think of staged fights off the faceoff, or in general? Is this an issue the NHL should reexamine in this era of player safety? Or was last night's tussle just too compelling to banish?

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