Why hasn’t Gary Bettman banned fighting in the NHL?

From a marketing perspective, the 2013-14 NHL season has started off-message thanks to fighting.

Chatter about the impending slate of outdoor games or the Olympics or realignment or the chance for improved goal scoring has been overshadowed by three pugilistic distractions:

1. The John Scott-fueled line brawl that led to debates about goons, coaches influencing them and how many whacks a star player can take with his stick before he’s suspended for three scrimmages.

2. The new helmet rule regarding player safety in fights – holy oxymoron, Batman – which has been summarily mocked or shown to be ineffective, as fights are willing to take the extra 2-minute penalty to have more ready access to their opponent’s skull.

3. Then, on opening night, George Parros face-planting onto the ice, getting knocked out cold as blood trickled from his chin before a stretcher wheeled him off. It was his second fight of the night against Colton Orr of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was wearing a helmet.

So the season begins with a debate about fighting. Instead of a column about the Leafs/Habs rivalry or the NHL’s forward momentum, Tim Wharnsby of CBC Sports covered the reignited fighting debate:

“I see both sides of the argument. Fighting has been part of the game for a long time. But the tide has turned in public opinion (a big part has been media driven) toward this part of the game. That's why hockey people need to get involved in the debate, too.”

Public opinion has turned on fighting, as long as that public is (a) Canadian and (b) comprised of a large swath of survey respondent that don’t self-identify as hardcore hockey fans. And what “hockey people” – by that we mean the people playing hockey – want is for fighting to continue, as 98-percent of the NHLPA opposed a ban in Feb. 2012 and 47 percent wanted to see the instigator gone.

Then there are the hockey people who would ultimately make the decision to take fighting out of the game, like Commissioner Gary Bettman.

‘Twas a time when Bettman taking on fighting would have been career suicide. The basketball guy is going to come in here and [expletive] with our heritage? With our game? He would have been on his ass faster than you could say “Gil Stein.”

Yet in the ensuing 20 years, Bettman has made the NHL a Scrooge McDuck money bin of cash, insulated himself with hand-picked owners and allies and has been trusted with the stewardship of the game.

Combine that with the concussion panic, and the litigation that the NFL was forced to settle, and the wind would be at Gary’s back to pass draconian legislation that bans – or seriously penalizes – fighting.

So why hasn’t he?

Because he doesn’t see the need, for two reasons.

The first is that the paying customer has yet to reject it. Sure, there's digital ink spilled on fighting’s horrors, but there hasn’t been an erosion of audience. The “no one leaves for popcorn during a fight” cliché is a lazy argument but it’s ultimately true: There’s no evidence that fighting has repelled fans, and any evidence that it’s kept casual fans of other sports away from hockey is circumstantial at best.

Bettman was asked about the Scott/Kessel affair on CBC’s “The National” by Peter Mansbridge this week, and said the NHL acknowledges its popularity without (according to him) seeking to increase it:

“It’s an emotional, passionate game. It keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s what’s special about our game. We don’t go out of our way to market or promote that. It is what it is. While some people would prefer not to see it in the game, other people enjoy seeing it.”

The NHL doesn’t go out of its way to market fighting, but it’s certainly come a long way in marketing it under Bettman.

When I started blogging, we had the advantage over NHL.com because the League’s digital mothership never ran fight videos or incidents of violence as a policy. That changed once the League saw the clicks they were handing to the competition; now even something like the Parros injury is in an NHL.com video player.

That isn’t the same thing as, say, building an ad campaign around it, but the NHL certainly hasn’t treated fighting like the bastardization of the sport many in the media are now framing it as being.

Does it help sell the game, Bettman was asked?

“For some people it helps, and for some people it hurts. There are no absolutes in this business,” he said. “The fact of the matter is some people who are less familiar with the game that might get excited by that, and there are some people who are seeing the game for the first time who say, ‘It was my first game, it was wonderful, but why did they do that in the second period?’”

But Bettman isn’t worried about those first-timers, or those turned off by fighting. Bettman also hasn’t gone after it with a ban-hammer: Because he believes it will, eventually and organically, leave the NHL.

Bettman said you can’t just “flip a switch” and he’s right. Fighting has declined during his tenure. The number of designated fighters has declined. Line brawls hardly happen; bench-clearing brawls never happen. Little tweaks to the rule book like the instigator and the helmet rule build some roadblocks to fights without outright banning them. There’s going to be a trickle-down to other levels of competitive hockey; and as those players reach the NHL, they’ll have advanced through a system where fighting is the exception rather than the rule.

I don’t often agree with Bettman, but we’re likeminded here. If fighting has a place in the game, then it’ll change and morph and adapt as players do the same. There is always going to be fighting – the game is much too physical and dangerous for there not to be, for policing or revenge purposes – but its frequency and occurrences will probably diminish in future generations.

If the NHL suffers a catastrophe like the death of a player, it’s going to immediately alter the rules for whatever happened to that player, whether it’s a hit from behind or to the head or an injury suffered in a fight. That’s the only way I see a fighting ban coming down from Bettman during his tenure.

Otherwise, he’ll do what a commissioner should be doing on every decision, in theory: Accepting guidance from his players and his paying customers on how to handle a game-changing decision.