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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Time to Give NHL Brawlers the Boot

November 17, 2002|Michael Wilbon | Washington Post

More than once I've criticized NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in this space for what I felt was turning a blind eye toward gratuitous violence that reduces the sport. So let me applaud him and his sergeant-at-arms Colin Campbell for suspending New York Ranger Coach Brian Trottier for two games this week for essentially precipitating a brawl by sending a lineup full of goons out for the final 2.8 seconds of a game.

With nothing left in a 6-3 loss but a neutral-zone faceoff, Trottier sent Krzysztof Oliwa, Sandy McCarthy and Matt Barnaby onto the ice, and trust me that nobody will ever confuse these three with Gretzky, Howe and Orr. And what did Trottier's goons do in those final 2.8 seconds of Saturday night's game in Columbus? They thugged it up. Oliwa crosschecked Grant Marshall the instant the puck was dropped, despite being warned by referee Kerry Fraser that the league would "throw the book" at him if he did anything.

Campbell, obviously with Bettman's blessing, suspended Oliwa for five games, Trottier for two games. Fabulous. None of the parties involved are talking about the brawl or the discipline handed out. But Bettman said in several different interviews last Thursday and Friday that fighting is down across the league, which it is. And one way to reduced it even further is to suspend not just the goon, but the coach who keeps him around, dispatches him to do the vile work that's still to some extent embraced in the culture of the NHL.

I like hockey. I hate hockey fighting. Anything that takes one's eye away from the skill and artistry of the best players in the world, in my mind, undermines the product. I find it hard to work up any real sympathy for the Washington Capitals that they will be without their primary fighter, Stephen Peat, for the next month or so because his right hand needs surgery, probably because he has thrown more punches with it in the last few weeks than Lennox Lewis. In the Washington Post on Tuesday, Jason La Canfora's story on Peat's injury was entirely about fighting. The really encouraging news to me in that story is that the Capitals, even though they recently traded tough-guy Chris Simon to Chicago, apparently aren't looking to deal for a fighter and don't have one in the minors. Imagine that, they could use an actual skilled player on the roster in place of Peat!

Of course, if the Capitals' skill guys start getting pounded over the next few weeks before Peat returns, George McPhee is going to feel his players are at a disadvantage and therefore he is compelled to get an enforcer. Alex Henry, the 6-foot-6 wingman who could be converted to defense, might want to keep himself warm in the bullpen. (To show you what the Rangers really think of Oliwa, the Rangers sent him home even though he is allowed to practice while under suspension. Maybe that's because Oliwa doesn't need a rink to practice, he needs a speed bag and Emanuel Steward.)

No, I'm not naive enough to think fighting is going to disappear from the NHL, even though it serves no purpose, and it's the only sport anywhere that sanctions fighting. Guys are still going to drop the gloves and fight, and many more people within the NHL seem to want it that way than not. Jarome Iginla, last year's leading goal scorer, was widely applauded for fighting last week. There's a whole underground network of hockey fight tapes that are absolutely prized. But Bettman's effort to clean up the game and put the emphasis on the skill, speed and beauty of the game shouldn't go unnoticed. The number of relatively unskilled goons is down, with all apologies to Edmonton's George Laraque, the reigning NHL tough-guy. The Bob Proberts and Marty McSorleys -- hired pieces of meat -- are thankfully becoming extinct.

Even if the NHL isn't exactly moving closer to the Olympic-style of game that many of us find superior and more engaging, Bettman's suspension of Trottier sends a message of intolerance for premeditated fighting. Actually, the NHL had already told team executives that there would be zero-tolerance of situations where one team goes after another at the end of a lopsided game. So Bettman and Campbell, when they suspended Trottier, were only backing up what they'd already told the clubs.

It wasn't a reach to pop the Rangers and Trottier. Oliwa was sent out on the ice with 2.8 seconds left specifically to tag somebody. It had happened earlier against Tampa Bay. I wonder how much Trottier was egged on by his assistants, tough guys Jim Schoenfeld and Terry O'Reilly, yes, the former Bruins fighter. You can smell these end-of-game, we've-got-no-chance-to-win-but-we're-going-show-you situations a mile away.

While I'm in, apparently, that small percentage of people who wants fighting eliminated altogether, it's clear that ridding the game of obviously gratuitous fights, premeditated brawls provoked by coaches and the clutching and grabbing offenses that tend to obscure the brilliance of the world's best players goes a long way toward improving the NHL's product, as long as Bettman and Campbell keep the heat on the offenders.

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