If you had asked me only a few years ago whether or not I thought the NHL should eliminate fighting, I would have emphatically told you no. My defense at the time was that a) it is part of the culture of the game and has been for decades b) a good fight can cause a momentum shift c) it’s entertaining.
But as the years have gone by and the game has evolved, my point of view has evolved with it. Rather than look back at fighting’s importance in the past or even its acceptance — albeit curbed — in today’s game, the brightest minds in hockey should always be looking forward.
Make no mistake, whether you think fighting in hockey should be eliminated, watered down, or even championed, the league is chipping away at its importance. The instigator penalty, the determination to eliminate staged fights, and now the crackdown on helmet removals is evidence of the league’s evolved thinking.
Rule by rule the league is teeing up what will sooner or later be the elimination of hockey’s most polarizing subject. Ultimately, it’s probably the right thing to do for player safety. I mean it is incredibly contradictory for the league to be pro-fighting and trying to minimize the number/severity of concussions in the same breath.
More importantly, the elimination of fighting could also be good for business. The NHL for years has been focusing on growing casual hockey fans rather than serving their hardcore fans. The shootout, the removal of the redline, the Winter Classic, have all been about trying to get those millions of people who watch Olympic hockey to tune into the NHL’s regular season.
The only way the league is going to continue its upward trajectory is to keep appealing to a broader, more diverse audience. One way to accomplish this is to ban fighting, which is more of a barrier for potential fans to get into the game than it is a conduit for existing fans to connect.
While polls have shown that 98% of the players support fighting (which is to be expected), other polls have shown that the same % of existing fans will continue to follow their teams if fighting were to be banned.
Keeping fighting might appease current players, as there are still guys who use their fists to make money. However, even the Donald Brashears of the hockey world are dwindling and will continue to do so now that junior hockey has followed the NCAA’s footsteps and banned fighting. Pretty soon there will be more Ryan Carters and Dominic Moores, who can play in all three zones, getting 4th line minutes than there will be enforcer only types coming up the ranks.
And while some hockey fans will lament that eliminating fighting will allow certain players to have free reign to go after the game’s elite without fear of consequence, I’d argue that already happened a long time ago. This generation’s cheap shot artists barely ever drop the gloves.
When does Brad Marchand, Matt Cooke, Alexander Burrows, Daniel Carcillo, etc. ever pay for their bs? When are they ever “policed”? If retribution is what people want, hard hits may end up being the antidote.
Sooner or later, more and more important people in important places are going to change their tune and realize that banning fighting could be a win for player safety, growing the fan base, and most importantly making money. One day in the not too distant future the league and the NHLPA will determine what is for the greater good.