Unless you’ve been living under the proverbial hockey rock, then you at least heard something about the Ray Emery/Braden Holtby incident from a few weeks back. For those of you who didn’t, here’s the short version: during a 7-0 drubbing of the Flyers at the hands of Washington, a scrum ensued down in the Caps’ end. Clearly frustrated, Ray Emery decided to skate the length of the ice and viciously pummel a clearly unwilling Braden Holtby. It was disgusting and deserved supplemental discipline. However, Brendan Shanahan was unable to cite authority in the rulebook granting him the right to impose further punishment on Sugar Ray.
Fast forward to last week, where it became known that the NHL powers-that-be were going to discuss the incident at the GM meetings in Toronto. The only hitch, they were talking about banning goalie fights. Wait, what?
Contrary to the title of this post, this piece actually has nothing to do with goalies. The only thing that makes goalies relevant to this discussion is that it’s the position Emery and Holtby happen to play, and the league is taking this ridiculous stance to solve the problem. So, let me get this straight: a willing combatant assaults a completely unwilling combatant, beats him senseless and the solution is, to ban goalie fighting?
How is this not a conversation about supplemental discipline for those who engage in violent acts on the ice with a player who has no desire to reciprocate? Think John Scott/Phil Kessel (minus the lumberjack chop). Isn’t the bigger issue when an enforcer-type player essentially gives a weaker player no choice but to engage in a dangerous physical altercation?
This isn’t meant to be an overarching commentary about fighting’s place in the game (maybe I’ll tackle that in the future, maybe). The point is that the NHL is wildly missing the mark on what the real problem here is. This is a classic example of knee-jerk legislation. There was public outcry due to a specific and isolated event, so the solution is clearly to legislate the hell out of the lowest common denominator.
Just look at this quote from Bettman cited in the ESPN article above:
”There hasn’t been a rule against it, and if in the final analysis we think it’s a bad idea for goaltenders to skate the length of the ice and fight each other, then you make a rule to prohibit that,” said Bettman.
What in the world does this have to do with the reason people felt sick from watching Holtby get his brains beat in? It had nothing to do with the fact that Emery skated the length of the ice, or that he was wearing goalie pads. It’s the fact that Holtby wasn’t involved in the fisticuffs at all, and was forced into the fray by Emery. That’s not analysis, Gary. That’s patronizing dreck. Also, no discussion of the Linesman Francois St. Laurent holding other players and officials back as Emery did his work? Why is his conduct not being scrutinized?
This event should provide the league with an opportunity. This type of incident should provide a body of professional hockey minds the forum in which to have a thoughtful and productive discussion about the concept of fighting in the modern game, and the most important lens to view that discussion: player safety. It would take a tiny tweak to the rulebook to immediately dispense with this problem, in the form of mandating a match penalty and exposure to supplemental discipline for a player who ignores the unwillingness of a player he intends to engage in a fight, continuing to seek out that altercation. Think of it as the “Two to Tango” rule.
Outside the framework of that rule, start taking a look at empirical evidence on serious injuries, head shots and other relevant data and at least start an exploratory committee on the subject of major penalties for hits targeting the head and the elimination of staged fights and other unnecessary risks to player safety. After all, doesn’t it make more sense to actually address the true, underlying issue than throwing a PR band-aid at a problem that doesn’t really exist?