Sunday January 8, 2012

It is time for the National Hockey League to begin to legislate fighting out of the sport.

That is the first thing I would do were I King of Hockey.

This is not the pleading of some bleeding heart who thinks physical play doesn't belong in hockey. I'm one of the biggest hip check fans around.

I believe that a fight can turn around the momentum in a game, and sometimes the gloves have to drop. I've seen it at the TD Garden where a fight can amp up a Bruins crowd that had been fairly passive. It can also turn a team playing softly into a rock-hard unit. Just watch the guys on the bench hit their sticks on the side boards if you want to know how a fight affects them.

In fact, when I was a kid, we'd wait patiently to see which Pittsburgh Penguin player would drop gloves and try to fight one of the Plager brothers from St. Louis.

My two favorite players from those Original 12 years were Brian "Bugsy" Watson and Al Smith. Watson would pile up 300-plus penalty minutes faster than I wake up in the morning. Smith was a goalie who was as good of a fighter as he was at stopping pucks.

It is time to put the brakes on fighting.

If you're a Bruin who had to go with Matt Cooke after Cooke blasted Marc Savard from behind, go for it. Sticking up for a teammate is important. But if you got into the fight, you should head to the locker room for the night and the next game. No more just sitting out for five minutes.


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Now if you're the designated fighter, it's not much of a loss. The NHL should mandate an extra 5-minute major penalty to the player who threw the first punch, giving the other team a power play. The players who miss the next game should not be allowed to be replaced on the roster. That punishes each team in the next game.

There are some cases where a team will take the tradeoff to earn some justice. As long as the coaches and players know the penalties, so be it.

The biggest crisis facing the NHL involves concussions. You want to cut the number? If fighting is scaled down, there will be fewer hits to the head. While a majority of fights don't bring on concussions, maybe the hit into the boards after the fight wouldn't have triggered a concussion had there not been fisticuffs earlier.

The league is missing Sidney Crosby, Chris Pronger and a host of other players who are sidelined with concussions. We don't want to see any more Savards, whose career was ended by a head shot.

Which leads me to my next change in the sport: Any hit to the head is a 5-minute major penalty.

It doesn't matter if it was deliberate or unintentional. This rule takes the guesswork out of the officials' minds. Run at a guy, 5 minutes. Accidental check to the head, 5 minutes.

You want to have fewer concussions, ban all head shots.

These players can cut it out. The aforementioned Cooke is a perfect example.

Cooke, who was suspended for the Stanley Cup playoffs last year for elbowing a player in the head, has played in 38 games this year and has only 14 penalty minutes. He is projected to have 30 penalty minutes this year. The season before, Cooke had 129 penalty minutes.

That shows you it is possible for an "enforcer" to change his game.

Hockey is a great game. Be physical, hit people -- even in the open ice. But hit someone in the head, in a fight or a check, and you do so at your peril.

To reach Howard Herman:
hherman@berkshireeagle.com,
(413) 496-6253.
On Twitter: @howardherman.