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Why rare line brawls shouldn’t be regarded as black marks on the NHL


Jan 22, 2014


For the year 2014, January 18th should not be a date that holds much relevance to anyone in the hockey community or fans, but unfortunately it does. Will it be a permanent date to remember? No. However, it is a date that will be remembered whenever anyone measures the pros and cons to fighting in hockey.

Just a handful of days ago, a full line of players from both the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames broke out into a full-fledged “line brawl”.

142 penalty minutes and two seconds off the clock later, all ten players ended up in the penalty box, fans were on their feet, and the media began typing their storylines. While Canucks head coach John Tortorella did not help the situation by charging the Flames locker room after the first period in search of counterpart Bob Hartley, the brawl happened and that should have been the end of the story after all was said and done.

But it wasn’t.

Instead of business being carried on as usual in the NHL, the league has been targeted by people covering it to those on the outside looking in. Noted baseball analyst Peter Gammons tweeted out what could have been the most bizarre take at fighting in hockey:

Fighting in the NHL has been a hot topic for quite some time, ranging from those that think it should be completely eliminated to those that feel it’s a key component for the sport, but labeling the NHL as a “minor sport” due to a line brawl would not be near a correct assessment of what fighting does for the league.

In all due respect to differing opinions, line brawls do as much damage to the National Hockey League as bench-clearing brawls do to Major League Baseball. Do line brawls happen every day? No, they are quite rare over the course of the 1,230 games that are played between the 30 teams in the league.

How many have occurred this season? I can recall three cases of line brawls that have happened this season: September 22nd between the Sabres and Maple Leafs, November 1st between the Flyers and Capitals and January 18th between the Canucks and Flames.

Why is this brawl fanning the proverbial flames of the fire more than any other line brawl? Why is it even a big deal in the first place?

How often has inside pitching in baseball been brought up in relevance to being a black mark on the MLB? I can’t remember that argument ever being made. The fact of the matter is, targeting by pitchers in baseball has been happening for nearly 100 years. Even a book was written on the subject.

Does that sound familiar? Of course it does, because nearly the same book was written about fighting in the NHL five years prior to the aforementioned book on baseball’s code

What is interesting is the overview that is given for Jason Turbow’s book about “The Baseball Codes”:

At the heart of this book are incredible and often hilarious stories involving national heroes (like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays) and notorious headhunters (like Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale) in a century-long series of confrontations over respect, honor, and the soul of the game.”

Here is the phrase that really hit home: “Confrontations over respect, honor, and the soul of the game”. It sounds almost exactly how fighting has been described time and time again in regards to the NHL. If you ask any player, most accept that fighting is a part of hockey and that it has its own role.

Are line brawls a good image for hockey? Of course not, but they are going to happen from time to time, just as bench-clearings happen in baseball.

“It’s definitely something you really don’t like to see and that’s something we’re trying to get rid of in our game, especially to the viewers that don’t really understand hockey. It kind of makes it looks like a bunch of meatheads, almost,” said Predators goaltender Carter Hutton. “I definitely don’t think there is a great impact for it. There is obviously that role, you need guys to fight and protect your players. Something like that, where it’s initiated before the game and you can tell it’s going to happen? I really don’t think there is a need for that.”

“I don’t think the line brawl itself was too bad. It’s something that happened, there wasn’t any real cheap shots or anything taken out there,” said Predators forward Nick Spaling.

In the same regard, fighting is part of the only attention that the sport receives outside its own followers. ESPN, once delivering strong coverage and a weekly “National Hockey Night” for over ten years from 1992 through 2004, rarely mentions hockey in their nightly broadcasts while slam dunks, interceptions and home runs dominate their top plays.

Singling out ESPN is a bit unfair, in my opinion, since there are quite a few sympathetic figures in regards to hockey that reside with the Bristol, Connecticut-based sports channel (including former player and coach Barry Melrose, anchors Steve Levy and John Buccigross, former goalie and Rangers fan Linda Cohn, and columnists Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun). However, the fact remains that hockey is held in low regard compared to every other major sport.

Yet, when an all-out fight happens? It drives attention. And the players know it.

“[The line brawl] happened, it happens. People say they hate fighting and they want to get fighting out of the game, but you look in the stands and what do the fans love the most? The love that kind of stuff. It’s kind of a hit and miss, but some fans like it, some don’t. That’s just hockey though,” said Predators defenseman Victor Bartley.

“[The line brawl] got on SportsCenter, you know what I’m saying? People think that hinders us because that’s the only thing they show,” said Predators forward Eric Nystrom. “There are so many great aspects to the game. Behind-the-back passes, highlight-reel goals and just such grace in the game, but that’s what they show on TV and that’s what gets the coverage. So, if that’s what takes us to get us on TV and if that’s what the fans love, then I love it too.”

Fighting is a part of the NHL, just like inside pitching is in the MLB.

Are line brawls going to happen? From time to time, yes.

Are bench-clearing brawls going to happen? From time to time, yes.

Ban both? Ban neither? Has a level of affectation finally entrenched itself deep within the NHL and those that report on it?

Photo Credit: Sarah Fuqua