It's difficult to say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for television.
The one certainty is that staged fights are on the verge of their final curtain call.
It has become the chatter of the league lately, the NHL moving decisively on what is perceived to be the simplest of all problems to fix. Two coaches send out their resident goons, they catch each other's eye, agree to "go," drop their gloves and whale away on each other until they tire and, in what has become ritual, the linesmen move in and the two fighters, if still on their skates, skate away looking up at the scoreboard to see if their moment in the spotlight is already on replay.
While there may be fans who still believe such a fight can change the course of the game, the NHL thinking has long been that the staged fight accomplishes nothing, apart from possible entertainment, and that possible entertainment dividend has recently been cancelled out by miserable PR for the league's failure to move, in any capacity, on fighting.
So you get rid of something extraneous, unnecessary and – to many in the league – embarrassing for the game, and the soft, pinko, crybaby critics who think hockey should be booboo-free can no longer accuse the NHL of living in the Dark Ages.
Change is already evident to anyone who has paid attention to how most teams are structured these days. The fourth line, hockey's vestigial appendage, has slowly transformed from the threesome where you store the thug(s) to one that, if you really must use a fourth line, you can send out speed and high energy for the handful of minutes a fourth line consumes. They may not be the greatest players, but they can play.
The formal end to staged fights may well begin during the general managers' scheduled meetings March 12-14 in Boca Raton, Fla. The following day would be the Ides of March, appropriately signalling to those who perform in the staged farces that the end is nigh. By next season, there may be serious penalties for players and teams that stage fights. None may be necessary, however, as by then there will not likely be enough such players in the league who know the required dance moves.
Fighting of any kind is already declining in the NHL. As USA Today reported this week, the number of fights has fallen by 25 per cent. That still means there will be approximately one fight for every two of the 1,230 games played during the regular season – an astonishingly high figure compared to such other high-contact sports as professional football – but there remains indisputable evidence that both fights and fighters are declining in number.
Some are decrying the shift. Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke spoke out loudly in defence of enforcers this past week when he said he was forced to send Colton Orr to the minors because Orr could find no one to fight with. With only one major this year, Orr's remuneration amounted to $1-million a round.
Burke's point, embraced by many, is that with the enforcer role now falling to league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan and on-ice issues no longer settled by fists but by possible suspension, "the rats will take this game over." Others argue that Shanahan's hard-line stand is precisely what will reduce the elbows and stick work and head shots, and they point to renowned "rat" Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who last year had 129 minutes in penalties, was suspended for the final 10 games of the season and the first playoff round, promised to reform and has. Cooke has only 14 minutes in penalties this year.
It may be as well that the diminishing role of fighting is merely a statistical anomaly, but we think it is real and merely the beginning of real change. The end of staged fights is such a simple gesture that the league will move against it without much debate. Huge debate, on the other hand, would follow any motion toward an outright ban on fighting, the tossing of fighters from games (as other team sports do), or the common-sense argument that a five-minute major for even spontaneous fights is no penalty whatsoever and the penalty must, in a team sport, carry real consequences for it to mean anything at all.
Even so, a lot of fighters are soon to receive pink slips from a game they were never expected to play.
While history suggests they will, in return, instantly receive employment offers from sports television panels to explain that game they never played.