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Ready To Rumble

March 09, 2009|Helene Elliott

Go ahead and ask Dean Lombardi if fighting has a place in the NHL.

Then settle in for a passionate defense of conduct that's applauded in rinks around North America but forbidden in other major professional sports leagues here and in Europe.

"If you want to throw a fastball at somebody's head, you can get away with it and not be held accountable," the Kings' general manager said. "If you want to crackback block and break somebody's leg, you can get away with it.

"But you want to try and do that in hockey, you weren't allowed without having to answer for it."

The rationale for fighting, and ways to control emotions inflamed when men skating fast and carrying sticks crash into each other in an enclosed area, have been debated for decades.

By imposing heavy fines and penalties, the NHL has virtually eliminated the bench-clearing brawls made infamous by the Hanson brothers in "Slap Shot" and the Philadelphia Flyers' Broad Street Bullies teams of the 1970s.

But despite the NHL's post-lockout emphasis on skating and scoring, enforcers remain a must-have for every team, even though most hardly play and rarely dress in the playoffs.

"We need to police ourselves out here," said Ducks right wing George Parros, a heavyweight among enforcers with 526 penalty minutes in 217 NHL games.

Fighting reemerged as a hot topic this season after 21-year-old Don Sanderson of Whitby, Canada, died Jan. 2, three weeks after he hit his bare head on the ice during a fight in an amateur game. Three weeks later Flyers prospect Garrett Klotz suffered a seizure during a fight in a minor league game, but he returned within a few weeks.

Soon after Sanderson's death the junior-level Ontario Hockey League mandated suspensions for players who remove their helmet or chin strap before a fight. It also ordered linesmen to break up fights when a player's helmet comes off. The NHL will consider its response starting today, when general managers convene for three days of meetings in Naples, Fla.

Their agenda will encompass several issues, such as shrinking goaltenders' equipment and amending salary-cap rules to allow clubs to trade cap space, but their discussions of fighting will take center stage.

They might recommend adopting the OHL's policy on helmets. They might suggest additional penalties for so-called staged fights, when one enforcer goes after another for no obvious reason. They have many options in shaping the future of fighting.

"And maybe the answer there is nothing," said Lou Lamoriello of the New Jersey Devils, an influential figure among his peers. "But you have to examine and listen and look at everything you can that makes some kind of sense that might prevent or restrict any catastrophe from happening."

Any recommendations they make will be forwarded to the NHL competition committee, composed of five players, four GMs and an owner. They can send ideas to the Board of Governors for final consideration.

This much is sure: The general managers will not advocate a ban on fighting. Not this week and probably not ever.

"It absolutely belongs in the game," Lombardi said.

"Having seen a lot of European hockey, I've seen the alternative: stick swinging, with people taking liberties with the top players and not having to answer for it, and this stuff where guys are charging people and jumping up and throwing elbows, and not being held accountable for it."

To him, fighting is a natural part of a rugged sport.

"Maybe this is politically incorrect, but I think hockey appealed to me, and I know kids from my generation, because it tested your manhood," Lombardi said.

Lamoriello also believes stickwork would increase without fighting because players would hack opponents with impunity.

"I do not think it should, nor would I support, fighting coming out of the game," he said. "It is a part of our culture and the game, and it is something that fans want."

That's clear every time Parros hits the ice.

He's among the Ducks' most popular players, inspiring fans to buy replicas of his mustache -- proceeds go to charity -- and admirers at the University of British Columbia to name their ball hockey team "George Parros' Mustache."

It's not his finesse they appreciate.

"There's people that enjoy the fights, enjoy the physical side of the game," he said. "And if you take that away, we're going to lose a fan base that we can't afford to lose."

There may also be sports fans who shun the game because of fights.

"But for every person who finds it distasteful, there's another person who finds that it plays a positive role in the game," said Paul Kelly, executive director of the NHL Players' Assn. "I'd suggest that a lot of the fighting that goes on actually cleans up the sport."

He said he hadn't polled players but has a firm sense they support fighting as a way to protect smaller skill players.

"That said, we believe that we should strive to make safety issues the priority here," he said. "If we're going to allow fighting, can we do it in such a way to avoid the potential for serious injury on the part of our players?"

Lombardi said he'd support requiring players to keep their helmets on during fights. "I think that has a place. I don't have a problem with it at our level," he said.

Parros said he wouldn't object to that but wouldn't want more drastic rule changes.

"I think that since the lockout, the way the game has changed, the way the speed of the game has picked up, it's eliminated the fighter that can only fight," he said.

"I think it's pretty good the way it is now. We've got guys that can skate and protect their players."

If only they could be as sure they're well-protected too.



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