Bob Ford: Fighting is hockey's problem

Panthers center Nick Tarnasky (74) fights with Arron Asham (45) in the first period. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Even in retrospect, nearly a week after all the buzz surrounding the Olympic gold-medal hockey game between the U.S. team and Canada has subsided, the viewership numbers for that matchup are still staggering.

It was the most-watched hockey game in the United States since the 1980 gold-medal game, and the most-watched sporting event ever in Canada, which is really saying something because those folks are indoors a lot.

Put the numbers together and the viewership in the two countries, the homelands for all the National Hockey League teams, approached 50 million.

Hockey in Canada doesn't particularly need a marketing boost, but it's hard to imagine a better commercial for the game in the United State than the Olympic final. It wasn't a perfect game, and far from the "best hockey game ever" gushing that followed, but it was pretty good, particularly for the casual fan.

Any game that goes to overtime is exciting, especially any game that important, but any game that goes to overtime because a goalie fails to glove a save that juniors make in their sleep loses a couple of style points.

And any game that ends with a sudden-death goal scored by a superstar obviously lends to the celebrity of the moment, but any such goal made possible when two defenders chase the "give" on a simple give-and-go and allow the "go" to walk in unchecked is somewhat less than the best ever.

Still, Sidney Crosby's deciding goal set off a monumental celebration in Canada and prevented the helium from escaping the giant inflated beavers that were about to merrily decorate the closing ceremonies. As for the United States, the outcome was a little deflating, but the promoters of the game talked bravely of an "Olympic carryover" for stateside interest in the NHL.

As if.

Hockey fans have been down this particular road before, and they know where it leads. If the NHL bosses actually delude themselves on the topic, it leads to a spate of new teams in places they should never be and, sometimes, to rule changes designed to lure new fans and, at the same time, drive the old fans crazy.

That's the conundrum for U.S. hockey fans who would like to see the NHL someday break out of its No. 4 rut. (Probably No. 5 during college football and basketball seasons, and maybe No. 6 depending on what NASCAR is doing.)

The price for gaining wider appreciation might be a steep one, and the ante for gaining admission to the game always comes back to the fighting.

There isn't much fighting in international hockey, for a very good reason. If you are whistled for fighting in the NHL, you get five minutes. In the international game, you go to the locker room and stay there.

Now, to a lot of people this seems reasonable. To the NHL and a large percentage of its fans, it would be intolerable. Darn it. They like the fights. If that makes all of them seem like troglodytes to outsiders, so what?

Which is fine. But then don't complain about being No. 4, or about abysmal television ratings, or, most important, about the Olympics having no carryover effect.

When the Flyers played the Panthers on Wednesday night, two fights broke out almost instantaneously. One was three seconds after the first puck dropped and the other five seconds into the opening period. Hard to say those fights resulted from the heat of the action or to police some development in the course of the game, which are the excuses often given for their existence.

The last time the NHL addressed the issue, it said that "staged fights," those preplanned bouts at the opening whistle, had to be eliminated and would carry 10-minute misconduct penalties along with the five-minute majors. So, that's what happened Wednesday night, right? Of course not. The NHL isn't serious about it, and the officials know it.

It is the same reason the "instigator" penalty is rarely called, which means the league believes fights sprout like crocus in the spring, and no one particularly starts them. When enforced, the instigator of a fight gets two minutes for that, five for fighting, a 10-minute misconduct and, the best part, another two minutes if he doesn't remove his face shield before the instigating.

So, the NHL has a rule that penalizes a player if he does not make injury more likely.

The instigator penalty, if it happens in the last five minutes of a game – in other words, when someone takes a run at an opponent after the outcome has been decided – is supposed to carry a one-game suspension, too.

In last season's Stanley Cup Finals, Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins was given an instigator penalty for starting a fight with 19 seconds left in Game 2. The league had an opportunity to send a real message, and it did, because the play was reviewed and it was decided that Malkin shouldn't be suspended.

The message: Every now and then we have to make these rules to make it look like we care about the fighting, but play on, boys, we really don't.

Again, that's fine. It's your game. Run it however you like. Make it up as you go along. But don't expect the people who tuned in on Sunday because it was a special event to stay tuned for this kind of nonsense.

The Malkin story didn't get much attention outside the insular world of the NHL. That's because it wasn't an important hockey event in the eyes of the average sports fan. It wasn't the Olympics. It was only the Stanley Cup Finals.


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