The head of the NHL Players’ Association believes it is time to consider a rule mandating helmet use during fights and to examine the role of one-dimensional enforcers in the game.
While a “clear majority” of players want fighting to remain a part of ice hockey, Paul Kelly feels his constituency is open to restrictions on the process.
“A couple that we’ve talked about that ought to be looked at anyway is, do you consider a rule whereby players need to keep a helmet on during the course of a fight, and perhaps require officials to step in if a helmet comes off during a fight,” Kelly said on Wednesday.
“If it’s true that when guys get hurled to the ice or tripped to the ice and bang their skull on the ice is where the real danger comes from, then maybe we can protect against that. It’s certainly something worth looking at,” the union chief said.
Kelly acknowledged the role fighting has in policing the tenor of play, but added that so-called “staged fights” between two players with skill sets limited to throwing punches may no longer have a place in the game. The potential damage that strong men who stand well over 1.8m on skates and weigh more than 110kg can inflict might now make such bouts too dangerous.
“If it’s a staged fight between two superheavyweights that perhaps arranged it a day before the game, I’m not so sure those are the fights that we need to continue to have in the sport,” Kelly said. “And if they’re the most dangerous fights, we ought to take a good, hard look at those.”
“I’m not advocating elimination of their jobs, I’m talking about the question of safety. If those guys can hold a roster spot and skate on a fourth line and play and engage in fights which arise from the emotion of the game, great,” he said. “But if they’re only there for one purpose, then I think that’s at least one issue our competition committee will take a hard look at.”
Kelly’s comments came less than two weeks after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said fighting’s “rules of engagement” will be examined during a general managers meeting next month.
The fighting debate has been growing since March 2007 when league disciplinarian Colin Campbell suggested it was time to ask whether fisticuffs belonged in hockey.
He made the comment amid concern after Todd Fedoruk was taken from the ice on a stretcher after he was knocked out in a fight. The incidents have since become more worrisome.
The issue became magnified last month after Ontario senior men’s league player Don Sanderson fell into a coma after striking his head on the ice during a fight and then died. A few weeks later, Garrett Klotz suffered a seizure and was taken from the ice on a stretcher after a fight in an American Hockey League game.
The Ontario Hockey League has since instituted rules to ensure players keep their helmets on during fights. The AHL said it would follow the NHL’s lead.
Kelly insisted that the issue needs a thorough examination by the NHL’s competition committee, and that fighting should not be eliminated in a knee-jerk reaction.
“We shouldn’t allow one tragic event to dictate wholesale rule changes in our sport,” he said.
Instead, Kelly argued that fights arising “out of the spontaneity of the game, the adrenaline of the game, the emotion and the need to protect a teammate or yourself from an unclean hit,” were a natural part of hockey and were a required element of the sport.