TORONTO — A week ago, before the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks celebrated their Stanley Cup championship at the White House, Gary Bettman bumped into Ray Emery. The NHL commissioner was face to face with the guy who had just sparked the league’s latest fighting controversy. Everyone watched to see what would happen.
“Oh, Ray, it’s good to see you,” Bettman said. “I’ve been thinking about you.”
They had a chat.
Emery, who left the Blackhawks for the Philadelphia Flyers in the offseason, had gotten into a goalie fight three days before – if you could call it that. Amid a melee toward the end of a blowout Flyers loss, Emery charged down the ice and forced the Washington Capitals’ Braden Holtby to fight. He tossed around Holtby and landed punch after punch on his head.
It was deplorable. But not suspendable. Though Emery committed multiple infractions and received multiple penalties, nothing in the rulebook supported supplemental discipline. In fact, the aggressor rule, which covers players who keep punching defenseless opponents or unwilling combatants, specifies players should start being suspended when they do this kind of thing three times in a season.
So Bettman asked Emery a hypothetical question: What if there were an automatic 10-game suspension for crossing the red line to fight the other goaltender, like there is for leaving the bench to join a fight?
“Would you have done it?” Bettman asked.
“What?” Emery said. “Are you crazy?”
Bettman shared that anecdote Monday at the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference in Toronto. He told a packed ballroom that you don’t react rashly and make up the rules as you go along. You explore solutions calmly, and if you decide something needs to stop, you can go through the proper process and change the rules. “There are things you can do if you believe that that’s not the appropriate thing in the game,” he said.
He also said he would discuss fighting in general with the NHL’s GMs when they meet Tuesday in Toronto. “Frankly,” he told reporters in a hallway, “I want to take the pulse of the managers to see how they feel about it.” A few have spoken out against it recently – the Carolina Hurricanes’ Jim Rutherford, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Ray Shero and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steve Yzerman.
But is the NHL about to make major changes?
What? Are you crazy?
TSN’s Gord Miller chatted with Bettman on stage at the conference. Miller asked Bettman if fighting still has a place in the game. Bettman said fighting acts as a “thermostat.” He referenced Jarome Iginla’s fight with Vincent Lecavalier during the 2004 Stanley Cup Final.
“I’d rather them be punching each other than swinging sticks at each other,” Bettman said.
“What if they did neither?” Miller asked.
“Well, you’ve been following the game long enough to know that it’s physical, it’s fast-paced, it’s edgy, it’s emotional and sometimes you lose it,” Bettman said. “And if you’re going to lose it, we’d rather it be in more constructive ways.”
A second later, Bettman added: “By the way, to say you’re getting rid of fighting, I’m not even sure what that means, because you can change the penalty and make it more severe, that doesn’t mean if somebody’s sufficiently motivated, they’re not going to fight. So we’ll take the hypothetical. You get thrown out of the game if you fight. OK, I think guys will still fight if they feel the need. The bigger issue is, what about the staged fights? Sometimes they spark a team.”
It seems to make no sense. On one hand, Bettman says “there are things you can do.” On the other, he essentially says “there is nothing you can do.” But the dichotomy comes down to what you believe is appropriate in the game. It comes down to a choice. The NHL and its players choose how to regulate fighting under the rules, and they are choosing not to react like they did with head shots. The movement away from fighting has been glacial.
Not long ago, you could put your shoulder into an opponent’s head from the blindside and not receive a penalty. Now you can be suspended for the same hit. Matt Cooke hit Marc Savard, Mike Richards hit David Booth, and amid a concussion crisis, the NHL and its players decided to stop it. They outlawed blindside hits to the head. Then they outlawed hits from any direction that made the head the main point of contact, if the head was avoidable.
But whenever someone loses a one-sided fight – or there is an ugly accident, like when the Montreal Canadiens’ George Parros fell face-first into the ice on opening night this season and went off on a stretcher – the media make the issue far larger than do the powers that be. Bettman called something like Emery-Holtby “a small pebble relative to a beach full of sand.”
The reality: Most of the GMs still think fighting has a place in the game. The vast majority of players still want fighting in the game. These are big boys who know the risks – and know them better than ever before, actually, as science discovers more and more about the possible consequences of brain trauma. And the fans? The NHL does constant market research. “We tend to find out what our fans are thinking with precision,” Bettman said.
The NHL needs to do something in response to the Emery-Holtby incident – and it’s not automatic 10-game suspensions for goalies who cross the red line to fight the other goalie. When a player comes off the bench to join a brawl, he creates an unfair fight. If you keep a goalie from joining a brawl, you could create the unfair fight. You could make it 6-on-5.
The issue with Emery-Holtby was not that they were goalies, but that Emery forced Holtby to fight, even if Holtby did engage, if only to defend himself, and getting your butt kicked is a risk you take. The aggressor rule should be rewritten to give the department of player safety the discretion to suspend for a first offense. Instigate a fight with someone who clearly doesn’t want to go, and you’re gone, whether you’re a goalie, a defenseman or a forward. A central defense of fighting is that these are willing combatants giving informed consent, and in this scenario, that falls apart.
The league should go at least that far, if it won’t go farther. Fighting in general is down. It likely will continue to decrease now that visors are required for all players entering the NHL and players are required to keep their helmets on during fights, and it likely will be enough. Unless there is an incident the NHL simply cannot ignore – heaven forbid, with the media clucking tongues to say “told you so” – it will be an agenda item and little more for the foreseeable future, debated on Twitter and in taverns more than in GM meetings.
“There’s a consensus now because there’s a rule in effect,” Bettman said. “If somebody wants to change it, there needs to be a new consensus, so that’s why the discussion is ongoing.”
And ongoing, and ongoing …
MORE NHL COVERAGE ON YAHOO SPORTS:
[Related: Sabres coach benches top line in disastrous loss to Ducks]
[Nick Cotsonika: Three Periods: No excuses for spike in suspensions]
[Related: Panthers fire head coach Kevin Dineen]