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Shoalts: Time for Bettman to push fighting out of the game

If NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wants to know why his league routinely embarrasses itself on the subject of fighting, he should parse his comments after last weekend's fiasco from the Philadelphia Flyers and Ray Emery.

"There was no rule that was violated to elevate things to the level of a suspension," Bettman told the Columbus Dispatch about Emery's assault on fellow goaltender Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals. "It's something we'll continue to discuss.

"I don't think anybody liked it, liked what it looked like. Fortunately, it's not something that happens very often. But I'm sure it's something we'll focus on, particularly with the general managers."

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The letter of the NHL's law on aggressors in fights makes it appear Emery is not subject to a fine and/or suspension from the league's director of player safety Brendan Shanahan.

But Bettman conveniently overlooked another league bylaw, 28.1, which says, in part, "the Commissioner may, at his discretion, investigate any incident that occurs in connection with any [game] and may assess additional fines and/or suspensions …"

That is just one of several NHL bylaws that give Bettman all sorts of unilateral power in all sorts of matters on and off the ice. However, too often when the commissioner or any other NHL executive says "it's something we'll continue to discuss," it really means "we'll keep tap dancing until you fools are distracted by something else and forget about it."

The state of fighting in the NHL is such that Bettman needs to show he is serious when he said it is something the league will "focus on, particularly with the general managers." And it needs to go beyond rushing in a rule change at the GMs' next meeting, Nov. 12, that makes goaltenders, like Emery, who assault unwilling combatants subject to suspensions.

It is time to make the penalties for fighting so severe it and the players who do it most – those 6-foot-8, 270-pound dancing bears – fade away.

Something else Bettman might look into, and yes, I know it's a pipe dream, is actually putting "The Code" into writing. Just for fun. After all, the mythical list of what is and isn't acceptable violence in hockey is twisted into a pretzel every day, mostly by fighting advocates trying to justify their positions. So why not eliminate any confusion by writing a few things down?

There was a time when the common wisdom was that few players were hurt in hockey fights. Two players throwing punches while standing on skates could only rarely generate enough force for a knockout punch. But that was 20 or more years ago, when even the goons were not much bigger than the other players.

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Now, you have 6-foot-8, 270-pound specialists like John Scott of the Buffalo Sabres. Weight training and martial arts lessons abound, as do serious injuries. And it's more than the goons getting hurt.

Flyers forward Steve Downie challenged a Caps forward to fight in that weekend fiasco, and now he's out indefinitely with a concussion. An actual hockey player, Flyers centre Vincent Lecavalier, missed a game because of cuts sustained in the same brawl.

And for what? Well, The Code's enthusiasts say it's because when your fighter wins the whole team gets a lift. After the oft-rehearsed appearance of the dancing bears, everyone else is breathing fire. Right.

Funny thing about The Code. It used to hold that hard hits were part of the game. Isn't that what fighting advocates roar when measure are taken to protect players from head shots?

Players who wobbled back to the bench after a thunderous but clean bodycheck were told by their teammates and coaches to keep their heads up. But in the last 20 years, just about anyone who lands a good bodycheck is challenged to a fight.

What Bettman needs to do now is foster the growing feeling among some GMs that it is time to push fighting and other stupid behaviour out of the game by punishing the teams, not the individual players.

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Patrick Kaleta slams someone into the boards from behind? Fine Sabres head coach Ron Rolston, GM Darcy Regier and even team owner Terry Pegula.

And make sure the fines are paid. Another of the NHL's funny customs was that management fines often went uncollected.

Make the fines steep enough to hurt, make them pay and maybe you'll see a change in culture.

Follow me on Twitter: @dshoalts

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More


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