By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) It has taken years to reach this point, but the combination of medicine, awareness, tragedy and marketing sense has pushed hockey to the brink of real culture change. The movement to end the pointless savagery of fighting in the sport now has what it has long lacked:
A puncher’s chance.
The New York Times reported yesterday that USA Hockey and its counterpart Hockey Canada are advocating new rules that effectively ban fighting in the key amateur feeder-leagues to the NHL.
The Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Western Hockey League, North American Hockey League and every other under the auspices of the two groups would have systems that function like the NCAA, where fighting has essentially been eradicated by immediate ejections and increasing, ensuing suspensions.
USA Hockey’s board of directors will vote on any proposed changes in June, and it is clear that top executives in both countries want to act swiftly.
Bob Nicholson, the CEO of Hockey Canada, told the Times: “We want to get rid of fighting as quickly as we can. Our ultimate goal is to remove fighting.”
USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean was similarly straightforward, saying: “We’re an amateur sports organization that is concerned most about the safety of our members and marketing our sport. If our penalties for fighting were more onerous, that would serve both those purposes very well.”
And somewhere, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is smiling.
Bettman has long maintained the public position that fighting has a place in the sport’s big-leagues — citing attendance figures as evidence that fans like it and doubting the possible links between fighting and brain injuries – because he fears upsetting the vocal core of Canadian cave-people and their American cousins who still cling to the erroneous belief that fighting has something to do with the actual game.
But Bettman’s no dummy. What Ogrean said about marketing holds true for a league that still lacks a real national TV deal. More significantly, the climate has changed generally after an offseason that saw the deaths of enforcers Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, the revelation that Boogaard was suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, and the harrowing HBO Real Sports expose in which fighters described their fear and misery.
The recent efforts to reduce concussions have focused on legal hits and actions within the game itself, but it’s clear that any case for continued fighting is unsupportable, as concurrent with the trend.
Bettman may lack the guts to change the rules on his own, but he knows his game ultimately benefits from accelerated evolution. The light will shine into those caves, eventually.
Fact is, the enforcer has been on the way out for some time, with more teams opting for skill and speed to match the rules that opened up the ice. The “goon,” now, seems anachronistic and vestigial. The Olympics provided fight-free hockey for the world, with no voices crying out for more guys squaring off to slug each other. The silly ideas of “momentum change” and correlation of fighting to victory have been easily dismissed by statistical data that show no such things. Self-policing is being replaced, simply, by actual policing.
The NHL may not have to do anything, if they are willing to let fighting phase itself out. Kids will come up through youth leagues and juniors without it being a part of the game. Those who then get college scholarships will not have to adjust. It is unlikely that those generations of players reaching the NHL would then devolve into brawlers.
When the actual ban comes in the NHL, it will probably be after fighting is already gone – merely an administrative afterthought.
There will always be hard-core adherents to hockey fighting, making inane, illogical arguments as to why is must exist (rather than just saying they like the spectacle). And there will be other sports that those people can use to sublimate their bloodlust.
The rest of us will applaud the clear evidence that hockey is on the right side of history.
Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.
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