Fighting chance to stop gloves from dropping?

MONTREAL – Gary Bettman was reminded on Saturday about his initial plans to deal with fighting when he became NHL commissioner 16 years ago. Basically, Bettman said circa 1993 there would be healthy debate, a decision made and the issue put to rest.

He had to laugh on the eve of the 57th NHL All-Star game here as the debate of fighting appears to have rekindled to an all-time high.

“Did I say that?” Bettman said playfully. “Here?”

As opposed to the usual hand-wringing that accompanies statistics of increased fighting in the game, this focus on the rough stuff is fueled more from recent consequences of fights – the tragic death of an amateur player in Canada and a minor-leaguer who experienced seizures following a fight Friday night.

The common thread between the death of Don Sanderson – the 21-year-old defenseman in the Ontario Hockey League – and the seizure suffered by Philadelphia Phantoms forward Garrett Klotz is that both hit their heads on hard surfaces after getting knocked off balance in a fight. Sanderson’s head struck the ice and Klotz fell awkwardly into the boards.

So even if it wasn’t the punches that did the damage, the consequences of losing the only protection against such an incident – the helmet – was key. And that’s what is fueling deep thinkers to ponder what can be done to make fighting as safe as possible if it isn’t legislated out of the game.

Or – gasp! – should fighting be abolished?

“It’s become integral in terms of how the game is played,” Bettman said Saturday. “I think it acts as a bit of a thermostat, if you will, as to what takes place on the ice. And I believe that most of our fans enjoy that aspect of the game. I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all of our game. I always believed it is an incidental part of the game.”

It’s interesting to note that Sanderson was playing in a league that prohibits fighting.

Don’t expect it to go away, to the relief of fans in support of the rough stuff – and there are more out there than those against it. Yes, there might be tweaks to rules after plenty of discussion, and maybe it will happen later rather than sooner, but gloves will still drop.

The four All-Star coaches were asked about their stance on fighting. None said it should go away.

• “I’m of the opinion that it’s still important to the game,” said San Jose’s Todd McLellan, coach of the West. “I think it has its role in history, it has its role today.”

• “First and foremost, safety of players is your number one concern,” added Detroit’s Mike Babcock, the West assistant. “And as a league, you’re always looking to handle that and address it. … But I’m under the belief that there is a place in the game, and we’ve just got to handle it correctly.”

• “I like the suggestion that Wayne Gretzky had two weeks ago that any other league than the professional league should ban fighting,” said Montreal’s Guy Carbonneau, the East assistant. “If they’re not allowed to fight in the minor hockey or in organized hockey, maybe in the days, five, 10 years there will be no fighting in the NHL. But it has its place. I don’t think they’re going to be able to get rid of it.”

• “It’s very debatable. For every solution, there are always consequences,” added Boston’s Claude Julien, the East coach. “This is a very emotional game, so you ban that with the emotions running high, we might have some other issues that might be even worse.”

What Bettman suggested, for the lack of a better term, was establishing a guideline for “terms of engagement.” In other words, a mental checklist before two fighters can square off: chin straps tight, helmet on, no sucker punches at the outset, etc. And yes, we know how silly that all might sound for anyone who has played the game. It’s not like there’s a lot of time to organize thoughts and follow guidelines before trying to pummel the opponent.

General managers are just starting to think about this, so nothing is about to be decided. New Jersey’s Lou Lamoriello suggested there might be changes. Toronto’s Brian Burke cautioned while respecting the recent unfortunate situations, it’s important not to overreact. San Jose’s Doug Wilson said he’s of a mind not to decide, rather to listen.

“It may be a very short conversation because the combined hockey knowledge and experience that sits in the general manager’s room is probably 750 years,” Bettman said. “I may be understating it, and there may be no interest and appetite at all [for change].

“But the thing we have to focus on is, as long as you have fighting, we have to make sure it’s as safe as possible.”

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Saturday, Jan 24, 2009