Fight Night in Philly: Why Flyers, Caps brawl should trouble NHL

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

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"He didn't want a fight, but I basically said, 'Protect yourself,'" Flyers goalie Ray Emery explained to reporters when asked about his mad dash from his crease to Braden Holtby's to engage the Washington Capitals goaltender in a fight, if you want to call it that. "He didn't really have much of a choice."

Holtby, working on a shutout in a game that was out of hand, really didn't have a choice because Emery didn't give him one. The choices were made for all of the Capitals on the shift immediately after Joel Ward completed his hat trick to give Washington a 7-0 lead early in the third period.

The end result of a melee that saw four different fights break out, including the one between the two goaltenders, was 114 minutes in penalties and five game misconducts.

The Flyers totaled 99 penalty minutes in the game on their own. The team's new acquisition, Steve Downie, was injured in a fight with Washington's Aaron Volpatti earlier in the game and left the arena on a stretcher later that night. It was an all-around ugly affair in Philadelphia and that's even ignoring the fact that the Flyers lost 7-0.

Getting back to the brawl, the problem isn't necessarily that the fight happened. We've seen line brawls before and we'll see them again most likely. The problem is why it happened.

In a game that was out of hand for a team whose season has never really gotten off the ground in any meaningful way, the Flyers turned this thing into an all-out street fight that was only missing the switchblades and baseball bats.

It all started with Wayne Simmonds hitting anything he possibly could, looking like a child throwing the most violent of temper tantrums and taking it out on the other kids. Capitals rookie Tom Wilson, as he's wont to do, didn't like it and dropped the gloves.

Then out of nowhere, Emery, usually not one who wants to be left out when the game gets really crazy, went after Holtby in what is the NHL equivalent to assault. Holtby didn't want to go, but remember, "He didn't have a choice."

Holtby, as his team's starting goaltender, is as important an asset as anyone on the roster. Why should he fight in a game his team is winning 7-0? It's not because of anything the Capitals did, except score a lot of goals. Holtby was victimized because the Flyers were frustrated.

In the National Hockey League, if a team needs to change the momentum or get something --anything -- going, a fight is an accepted vehicle for trying to accomplish that.

It's not the Capitals' fault that the Flyers are a veritable dumpster on fire rolling down a hill with a tire factory at the end of it. It's because the Caps players on the ice were there, wearing different colored jerseys and the Flyers needed a spark. Since they certainly weren't going to be able to get that spark by playing actual hockey, they used the only method they had left.

At the NHL level, I don't mind fighting. I think it should be eradicated from junior hockey and its value in the NHL is decreasing more each year, but I try not to hop on a high horse about it. That said, if you think Friday night was within any kind of code or that it is at all acceptable, I'm in the process of acquiring a very tall horse.

The question the league has to continually ask itself when it evaluates fighting is why players fight.

Calgary Flames president Brian Burke wrote earlier this week in support of fighting for USA Today. Among the many reasons he feels it should stay is this:

Reduced to its simplest truth, fighting is one of the mechanisms that regulates the level of violence in our game. Players who break the rules are held accountable by other players.

Horrific injuries, stars being mugged, rats who run around hitting people from behind -- these stand out to us because they don't happen with regularity. It's fighting that keeps these incidents to a minimum.

It's pretty clear this is not what happened in Philadelphia. This fight didn't regulate any sort of violence, it enhanced it tenfold. Burke admits in his piece that not every fight is a good fight. The Flyers-Capitals line brawl was not a good fight.

The Department of Player Safety has been cracking down hard on hits to the head this season and the reframed Rule 48 is meant to enhance those protections. That rule doesn't protect anyone against fighting, however. So the fact that Holtby, as an unwilling combatant, took several hard blows to the back of his head should crinkle a few noses in the NHL offices.

Look at the suspensions this season that involve checks to the head, then look at what Emery did to Holtby and try to decide which one is worse. In a lot of cases, it's Emery. Even though Holtby wasn't injured on the play, he took unwanted and unnecessary contact to his skull.

The league administration has to be aware that it is talking out of both sides of its mouth on head contact and to not have rules that encompass all head contact is counterintuitive.

These are the types of fights that don't look good for the league. That said, these are also the types of fights that move the needle. The words "goalie fight" typically are Internet gold.

People like watching them for a number of reasons. Fans of hockey who love fighting love seeing the rare goalie fight because they're outside the norm of their regular viewing experience. People who hate fighting seize the opportunity to be outraged. Some people are just curious to see what two guys with big pillows on their body look like when engaged in hand-to-hand combat.

Any way you slice it, people watch.

This is the NHL's fighting conundrum in a nutshell. The league accepts fighting as a necessary evil not only for the fact that hockey people are under the assumption it holds players accountable (despite the fact that no research proves that to be true). It also accepts fighting because as of right now, it's part of the overall entertainment experience for the people that spend the money.

The league is already getting creative in trying to limit fighting with its new visor rules and the fact that fighters can't remove their helmets. Perhaps the Department of Player Safety should also start getting creative with supplemental discipline around fights.

As long as the league is willing to accept fighting in any form, fights in the form of what happened Friday night are accepted by default. They shouldn't be.

It seems this season has been one debate after another about fighting, but it is an important conversation to have. Especially when a down-and-out team tries to salvage something by attacking the other. That's not how it should work anymore.

 
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