Why the Connor McDavid fighting debate matters (Trending Topics)

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BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 22: Connor McDavid #97 of the Erie Otters prepares to play the Niagara IceDogs in an OHL hockey game at the First Niagara Center on October 22, 2014 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by B Wippert/Getty Images)
BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 22: Connor McDavid #97 of the Erie Otters prepares to play the Niagara IceDogs in an OHL hockey game at the First Niagara Center on October 22, 2014 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by B Wippert/Getty Images)

What Connor McDavid did earlier this week was stupid. Everyone agrees on that.

The presumptive No. 1 pick in this June's draft should not under any circumstances be trying to fight anyone for any reason at any time. This is true at any level: If a team lets its best player by far, an elite talent, get into a fight with some kid who might play a couple years of minor pro before he's never heard from outside a Toronto beer league again, it has essentially failed him. Yes, Bryson Cianfrone is captain of the Steelheads, but he has three more points in his two-year OHL career than McDavid did in his first 18 games this season. These are guys who are not on the same level, and thus engagement should not be allowed to take place. In this way, the Erie Otters let McDavid down. 

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You also get why it happened. How many slashes and crosschecks and spears and gloved punches can one 17-year-old endure before he just starts swinging? Unfortunate but that's what happens sometimes. It used to be that Sidney Crosby occasionally fought for the same reasons.

But what Connor McDavid did earlier this week was also unforgivable, because it launched the hockey world into yet another, “When are they going to ban fighting?!?!?!” debate.

Which isn't, or at least shouldn't be, the point.

Here's the real deal on fighting: It's going to go away.

Anti-fighting advocates, fighting advocates, indifferent observers, they're all wasting their breath and their time talking about, “Is this going to be what gets fighting banned in the OHL/NHL/hockey at large?” Of course it's not, nor does this particular unfortunate incident highlight or not-highlight the need for fighting to be preserved — theoretically to protect McDavid from the type of underhanded shenanigans against which he finally and unfortunately lashed out — or run out of the game.

Fighting will never be outlawed by the NHL. Not really. Not in the way that people who cling to the ability of players to fight like gun nuts cling to the Second Amendment after every school shooting would like you to believe. It might end up that you get a game misconduct or something, but supplemental discipline for fighting — as it exists in NCAA hockey; do it and you're automatically suspended for the next game —  seems like it will never happen.

Instead, what's going to happen is junior leagues will one day tighten up the bans, to the point where no one fights in hockey at the lower levels any more, and it will leave the game naturally. For the most part anyway; the “spontaneous” fight between two guys will probably always happen as long as it's allowed to, but they'll become very few and far between.

Fights will become curiosities, the kind of thing you can't believe you saw in any particular game. Wow, a fight. So out of the ordinary. When youngish fans two decades from now ask us about these days of the game, it'll be like we're talking about the Wild West. “You mean they had guys on the team just to fight? Why?” Why indeed.

I am of course of the opinion that fighting is an abhorrent part of the game which must be eradicated if only because it's deeply injurious to those involved, and I don't think a functioning brain is worth however many hundreds of thousands of dollars these guys can typically wring out of their relatively brief pugilistic careers. Maybe you argue it's up to them and this isn't a nanny state, and for the same reason adults are allowed to smoke, these guys should be allowed to punch each other in the face. Fair enough. You're making a terrible argument because if you were being intellectually honest, you'd just say you like seeing these guys give each other brain damage (which, P.S., means that you are a monster), but it's not hard to see your point.

Fighting has been in hockey for decades and all those player polls that show some absurdly large majority of players still want it there basically means it will be there for a long time to come in whatever form it ends up taking thanks to the wise action against it in youth and junior leagues (encouraging kids as young as 16 years old to punch each other in the face is by its nature abhorrent, and any junior coach who would allow it should be ashamed of himself).

But the reason the hockey world is having this discussion now is that it was McDavid, specifically, who hurt himself in a fight. That's the only reason anyone cares at all. If this had been some other Erie Otter — even if it were someone as high-profile as say, Dylan Strome — busting his hand up by punching the glass, and sitting out for a month and a half, not an eyebrow would be raised anywhere in the hockey world. Strome is a top prospect and he's been talked about for a while now, but he's no Connor McDavid. He's not even all that close. All that talk about, “What about his draft stock?” that preposterously came out this week would have been legitimate if focused on Strome, who might have dropped out of the top 10 or something like that. But McDavid would have to run over three kids and a puppy for Jack Eichel to squeak ahead of him on the ISS list, and Eichel is phenomenal.

It's hard to think back this far, but there was a time just about five years ago when the NHL really didn't give a rat's ass about concussions. How many old players have said something along the lines of, “Oh I probably had about a dozen concussions in my career but I played through 'em all!” in the last few years? A decent amount, at any rate. And how many guys who are in the league right now do you think will be able to say the same when their playing days are over? Not a lot. And it's not just because the science and medicine and precaution used in dealing with brain injuries has improved dramatically.

It's because Sidney Crosby got a concussion on national television.

Sorry, that's the only reason. If David Steckel never bumps into him — in that maybe-maybe-not accidentally way — in the Winter Classic, and if Victor Hedman doesn't bounce Crosby's skull off the glass four nights later, and if Crosby doesn't then miss the remainder of the season with a concussion, this emphasis probably doesn't happen at all. There's no Quiet Room (even if the league's use of it has been a joke). There's no discussion. There's probably no lawsuit against the league, even after that repugnant NFL settlement, or at least not a particularly credible one to which people in this sport would really pay that much attention.

But because it was Crosby, concussions have been A Thing for a few years now. And the league is better for it.

If the pearl-clutching fight fans out there really want to be concerned about their idiotic distraction being taken from the game, things in the McDavid fight would have had to go down a lot differently. A broken hand wasn't going to do it, because you get over a broken hand pretty quickly. It doesn't cause you to miss a season and it doesn't even really look all that bad. The fact that it was in junior, likewise, means that no one really has to care about it too much. Everyone will have forgotten about this fight the second McDavid puts on that Hurricanes jersey (sorry, Sabres) at the draft. If he's very, very lucky indeed, Cianfrone becomes the answer to a trivia question.

If fighting is going to be taken out of the game to a real extent at the NHL level, you're going to need to have someone of McDavid's or Crosby's or Steven Stamkos's or Nathan MacKinnon's stature — big star, hyper-talented player, etc. — bounce his head off the ice in a fight, like George Parros did at the start of last season. A scary moment, one which ends up with the player on a stretcher. You hope it doesn't happen, and maybe it's inevitable. Until that happens, fighting's not going anywhere.

The only thing McDavid's injury did was start a conversation that was never going to go anywhere. It matters because it's part of the path to outlawing fighting, but it's little more than a puddle to step in that's maybe a little deeper than you thought.

And now your sock's all wet.

Other than that, though, it changes nothing.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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