Ben Chessor
The Navigator

October 1 was opening night for the 2013-2014 NHL regular season. The first two periods of the season’s opening game were living up to the hype. The Toronto Maple Leafs went into the second intermission leading the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 in front of more than 21 thousand fans inside Montreal’s Bell Centre. The game had it all in the first two periods: great goaltending, three lead changes, and the seventh career fight between the Maple Leaf’s Colton Orr and the Canadiens’ George Parros. The atmosphere in the arena was electric as the two teams took the ice for the third period.

Less than three minutes into the third period the game took a scary turn. A scrum in front of Montreal goalie Carey Price resulted in a fight between Carter Ashton and Jarred Tinordi. As Ashton and Tinordi were being taken to the penalty box, Parros and Orr decided to fight for a second time in the game.

After a couple of wild punches by each player, Orr slipped and fell to the ice. As he fell, Orr pulled Parros down with him. Parros fell over top of Orr and landed face first on the ice. The crowd, which had roared in anticipation of the fight just seconds earlier, sat in  stunned silence as Orr stood over top of the unconscious Parros, motioning for doctors. Eventually, after some tense moments, Parros was brought to the nearest hospital on a stretcher, the blood was cleaned up, and play resumed.

Toronto went on to win 4-3 with a goal by former Vancouver Canuck Mason Raymond. The day after the game, the talk of the hockey world wasn’t about the score or the Maple Leafs’ season-opening victory. The attention of everyone shifted to the subject of fighting in hockey. The same questions that come up every time somebody gets injured in a hockey fight resurfaced once again. Will the NHL step in and ban fighting? Should they? Or has fighting become too much a part of the sport for it to be taken out? These questions are always asked for a few days after a player is hurt in a fight. Then a couple days later everyone in the hockey world seemingly forgets about the issue, and everyone goes back to the way it was before the injury occurred. Fighting blended back in as part of the game, along with hitting, slapshots, and the Calgary Flames missing the playoffs.

There’s no doubt that hockey fans love fights. The crowd’s reaction when their player wins a fight is often similar to their reaction when their team scores a big goal.  However, with all the new studies and information coming out about the damage of concussions (Parros suffered a concussion as result of his fall), how long can the NHL continue to turn a blind eye to the damages caused by fighting in the name of entertainment?

To its credit, the NHL has taken small steps in an attempt to make fighting more inconvenient for players. The league approved a rule in the off-season that states players are no longer allowed to take off their helmets to take part in fights. This rule combines with the mandatory visor rule the league passed last season, stating that all players with less than 25 games of NHL experience at the time of the rule would be forced to wear a visor.

The combination of the two rules makes fighting more inconvenient for players, who now risk hurting their hands on either the helmet or visor. The helmet rule was also intended to cut down on injuries where players hit their head on the ice. This rule didn’t help Parros, though, who was still wearing his helmet when he hit his chin on the ice.  Players who attempted to circumvent the helmet rule by taking off each other’s headgear before fights were given a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. These rules seem to be the league’s attempt to cut down on fighting without eliminating or banning it outright. While I do applaud the league for trying to do something to make the league a little safer, it doesn’t seem to be working.

After the 2004 lockout and the introduction of the shootout, fighting dropped severely in the NHL. During the ‘05-‘06 season, the first after the lockout, there were 466 fights in 1230 games, an average of about one fight every three games. The talk of the sport at the time was that fighting was on its way out.  Enforcers like Orr and Parros were being replaced with faster, more skilled players who could help their team in the shootout. Fast-forward to the present day, and fighting has found its way back into the game. Through the first 44 games of this season, 34 fights have taken place, an average of .77 fights per game, more than double the percentage from 2005. 44 games isn’t a very large sample size, and the amount of fights will probably go down slightly as the games become more important, but the .77 fights per game average is the highest the league has seen since the 1990s.

The main argument that hockey fans make against the banning of fighting is that it’s part of the game.  It serves the necessary purpose of keeping order on the ice. Hockey fans from the ‘80s are quick to bring up the Edmonton Oilers dynasty teams of that era. The Oilers were led by Wayne Gretzky, but hiding in the shadows was a man named Dave Semenko. Semenko was essentially Gretzky’s bodyguard, there to make sure no one attempted any cheap shots on the star player. It wasn’t long before everyone knew that anyone who touched Gretzky was going to have to deal with Semenko later, so they left Gretzky alone.

Semenko became known as the league’s first enforcer, a player that was there to beat up anyone who cheap shots a teammate. The tradition of the enforcer has lived on to the present day, with both Parros and Orr being prime examples of today’s enforcers. The two are certainly not goal scorers—Orr has 12 goals and 127 fights in 422 NHL games; Parros is slightly more talented offensively, with 17 goals, along with 160 fights in 452 NHL games. Their fight in the third period was the eighth fight between the two combatants in professional hockey. Orr suffered a serious concussion at the hands of Parros a few seasons earlier.

The role of the enforcer in hockey has changed since the ‘80s, to the point where an argument can be made that enforcers are no longer necessary in the game of hockey. During his hockey days, Semenko was the most feared man in the league. He stood 6’3 and weighed 215lbs. In the ‘80s, that made Semenko one of the biggest players in the league. He towered above some of his smaller opponents. Nowadays, Semenko would be considered one of the smallest enforcers in the league. Orr stands at the same height as Semenko, but weighs 230lbs. Parros is taller than Orr at 6’5, but only weighs 225lbs, still more than Semenko.

Enforcers in the NHL seem to be employed solely for entertainment value, because usually the only person strong enough to fight one team’s enforcer is the other team’s enforcer. That leads to situations like the Parros-Orr situation, where two players are fighting each other for the sole purpose of fighting. This has become known as a staged fight—a fight that isn’t caused by the emotion of the game but because it’s supposed to happen. These are the fights that need to be eliminated the NHL. Most of the biggest hockey fighting injuries are the result of a staged fight. The league could eliminate a lot of major injuries while still keeping the hockey tradition of fighting alive.

If staged fights were eliminated, the game would be able to keep its intensity. Fighting would still be allowed if it was the result of something that happened during the heat of the game. These are known as organic fights, and they are without a doubt the most interesting kind of fight in the sport—when two players get so locked into a battle with each other that the only way they can take out their frustrations is to fight it out on the ice. The Kevin Bieksa-Patrick Marleau fight during game two of the 2011 Western Conference Final is a prime example of an organic fight—two players who were sick of each other after five periods of playoff hockey. This is the kind of fight that is part of the game, and that fans agree needs to be preserved.

The question that remains is, how does the NHL continue to allow fighting while attempting to get rid of the staged fight? This question has no definite answer. Do you suspend players for fighting more than once, or if they have more penalty minutes than time on ice? The best solution to the problem so far has to be the new fighting rule that was introduced to the BCHL during the 2010 season—the five fight rule—which states that players are allowed to fight five times. During the season, players will receive a one game suspension for his sixth fight, and three games for his seventh fight. After a player’s ninth fight, suspensions reach the ten game mark.  This new rule, which has been in place for a couple seasons now, has led to a steady drop in the amount of fights league-wide, and has seemingly done away with the enforcers in that league.

Will the NHL ever step in and try to ban fighting, or will the league just continue to turn a blind eye to the violence on the ice because it entertains the fans? With enforcers in the league becoming bigger and stronger than ever, it’s only a matter of time before something happens, before someone slips and isn’t as lucky as George Parros. Hopefully, something tragic won’t have to happen for the league to finally take action.