Protecting players and their teeth, hockey outlaws fist-a-cuffs

New NHL rules push enforcers to brink of extinction. Photo: LM Otero

SANTA CRUZ, September 23, 2013 — Another National Hockey League season is poised to begin and, as has become routine, the league will be adding some new ink to the rule book. The NHL remains locked in a precarious detente between its more progressive and conservative internal voices.

For every hockey fan who embraces the league’s recent rule tweaks, there are those who decry any adjustment to a game they feel is already perfect.

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In an American television market where the NHL is running a distant fourth in popularity among the four so-called major sports, the league has decided that more goals will equal higher viewership. To this end, the league has removed the center red line as a deterrent to stretch passes, slowly chipped away at the girth of goalie equipment, and added the trapezoid behind the nets where goalies cannot play the puck. 

The changes would appear to be working, as the NHL has enjoyed a modest rise in television ratings over the last few years, particularly regarding its outdoor games and the Stanley Cup playoffs. By dangling this exciting programming in front of casual fans, the league has succeeded in upping its profile, beginning to change its image from a rogue sport full of fighting to an up tempo ballet of speed, skill and incidental violence. 

This season’s new rules also further the NHL’s desire to drive premeditated fighting out of the game. The league sees the perception of indiscriminate thuggery as a roadblock to wider popularity.

The question of whether fighting should be eliminated from the game is eminently contentious. While most hockey insiders believe fighting will always be part of the game, they also see it as something which should not be featured or celebrated. The speed and skill are the game’s most appealing attributes, with any fighting is purely incidental to events within the contest. Players policing themselves via the occasional scrap is widely seen as a preferable alternative to cheap shots and stick fouls. 

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What the league wants to weed out are the staged or premeditated bouts between players who bring little else to the table. The speed and skill the league is trying to sell slows to a crawl once two thugs lumber out onto the ice with the clear intention of dropping the gloves. Most of these so-called enforcers average between five and eight minutes of ice time in a game. They are barely able to play their position and are occupying a spot on the bench which could be used for a player with more to offer than a knockout punch.

Fighting in hockey is a tough racket. The players who do it for a living are putting their health on the line every time they fight, and many of them are disarmingly kind, gentle and selfless off the ice. During a fight, players are at risk of breaking knuckles, fingers and hands by landing punches to an opponents helmet. Players, in a quick, mutual agreement, sometimes remove their helmets before a fight. Under rule 46.6, any player that removes their helmet prior to a fight will be assessed an extra two minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

The dangers of fighting without a helmet are obvious, especially if a player loses their balance and falls, hitting their head on the ice. This rule protects players engaging in a spontaneous fight, while discouraging the designated brawlers from removing articles of their uniform before pummeling one another. 

The fighting debate in hockey will rage on. What the NHL is doing is trying to protect its players and invite the casual fan to discover how exciting hockey can be, even without the pugilism.

Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.


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Russ Rankin

Raised in the decidedly non-traditional hockey region of Santa Cruz, California, Russ Rankin fell in love with the game as a kid while watching the "Miracle On Ice" 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. He began playing recreationally as an adult when the Sharks joined the NHL in nearby San Jose and regularly attends Sharks home games. His favorite NHL team is the New Jersey Devils, which he has been following since the 1987-88 season. In 2007, with more and more U.S. born players (particularly from California) making an impact in the WHL, Rankin pursued his passion and knowledge of the game into a job scouting California for WHL clubs. He can be seen at rinks all over the state searching for the next great crop of players.

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