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Sawhney: NHL needs to get its act together

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As I have written before in these pages, I belong to a small class of fans who love hockey. It’s fast paced, action packed and viewer friendly, but the sport and its highest league, the NHL, are struggling mightily to grow and gain fan support here in the U.S. Part of the reason for these struggles is hockey’s tradition of “fighting” on the ice, when two players drop their gloves and go at it in an old-fashioned fistfight. Most teams employ enforcers whose sole job is to rough up opposing players.

Before last week, I was in the ranks of the apologists for this aspect of the sport. Sure, fighting might turn off some fans, but it is woven into the fabric of the sport. Even without fighting, hockey is a violent game, with players slamming into each other at high speeds.

I’ll even admit that there’s nothing that riles up the crowd at a hockey game quite like a fight, and elated cheers or disappointed groans ripple through the arena once the brawl has concluded, depending on the outcome. I myself have often been in those ranks, cheering on the Devils’ enforcers as they sought to bloody up opponents.

Yet the events of a Feb. 11 game on Long Island between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders have irrevocably turned me against fighting. It must be banned from the NHL now if the league hopes to salvage its image and appeal to the broader American sports consciousness.

To give a brief summation of that game, the teams basically brawled with one another throughout the contest, an eventual 9-3 win for the Isles. There were 65 penalties, 346 penalty minutes, 10 ejections and a goalie fight. The stage for the showdown was set in an earlier game between the two teams, when Pens goalie Brent Johnson broke a couple of bones in Isles goalie Rick DiPietro’s face during a goalie fight. After the fight, fines and suspensions were handed down to both teams.

The fallout from that game illustrated clearly to me the main reason why fighting should be tossed in the trash: the only time hockey gets any extended coverage on SportsCenter is around these types of brawls, feeding the negative image of hockey as a game for brutes, rednecks and Canadians. Any given hockey game is lucky to get five minutes of airtime on ESPN’s flagship program, but the videos of this fight were replayed over and over and over.

Over on the Internet, videos of three or four fights going on simultaneously on the ice headlined major sports websites, while a chorus of columnists decried the violence that the sport had devolved into. When Penguins owner Mario Lemieux called out the NHL for a lack of toughness in going after the perpetrators, it made headlines once again.

In order to further illustrate the need for a ban on fighting, let’s compare last week’s brawl to another famous altercation: the 2004 Pacers-Pistons fight in Detroit, famously prompted by a fan throwing a cup of Diet Coke at Ron Artest. True, the Malice at the Palace did a good deal of damage to the NBA’s image, but the league took swift and decisive action against all involved, including handing down suspensions to nine players.

More importantly, that fight was viewed as an aberration, sparked by a couple of idiotic fans and one particularly hotheaded player. By contrast, the Islanders and Penguins fought each other in a systemic way as entire teams for an extended period of time. The brawl is the natural outcome of the NHL’s fighting culture: when enforcers step over some unwritten line (as they sometimes do), the opposing team feels a need to respond with violence in kind.

The NHL needs to clean up its image in order to expand, and banning fighting would be an excellent start. For too long, the sport’s brutish side has obscured what it has to offer to the American fan. Hopefully, we’ll be able to look back on Feb. 11, 2011 as a crucial moment in hockey’s evolution, when it finally turned away from violence and embraced the elements that make the sport great.

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Kabir Sawhney is currently a desk editor for the News section. He served as the Managing Editor of Sports last volume.