There was an interesting incident during Tuesday night’s game between the Colorado Avalanche and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Avs forward Jarome Iginla and Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf dropped their gloves for an apparent star-on-star fight. Before they could even get a handful of each other’s jerseys the linemen stepped in to break it up.
It was very strange as there seemed to be no explanation for the linesmen stepping in. The stripes usually stand to the side and let the players settle their differences before stepping in when it’s either safe enough for them to get in there or if either of the combatants are in a dangerous position.
Darren Dreger of TSN offered an explanation of why it happened.
Most wanted to see Iggy and Dion scrap, but league wants linesmen to stop fights before they start when safe to do so. Great example.— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) October 15, 2014
This appears to be another instance of the NHL subtly looking for ways to curtail the amount of fights.
There have been a lot of minor alterations to the rulebook or instructions to referees in recent years that have made an effort to try and find a way to make fighting either safer or just less frequent. For instance, the additional penalties for instigators, which has brought down staged fighting. There were rules implemented last season that players can’t manually remove their helmets before a fight. The fact that visors will be mandatory for all players coming into the league now could also limit the number of scraps in some small way.
But this is the league putting more power in the hands of the linesmen.
The fights that erupt naturally as in a heat of the moment, “That was a bad hit, now we’re going to fight” type scenarios will be impossible for linesmen to break up without putting themselves at risk. The ones like Phaneuf and Iginla where the players have a brief chat before deciding to drop the gloves are the ones they can get in the middle of quickly. Those actually happen quite a bit.
A similar situation to the Iginla-Phaneuf non-fight happened in the game between the Dallas Stars and Columbus Blue Jackets Tuesday. Stars captain Jamie Benn and Blue Jackets forward Nick Foligno were getting a little chippy with their sticks when the two decided to ultimately drop the gloves. There was a fair amount of distance between the two as they had plenty of time to square up with each other before engaging. No linesmen stepped in for that one.
The report from Dreger, however, is further proof that the league is trying to get away from fighting without outright eliminating it, or strengthening fighting penalties beyond what they are now.
Fighting was down across the NHL last season with 0.38 fights per game according to hockeyfights.com. That was the lowest mark since 2005-06. Fans were much more likely to go to a game and not see a fight than see one.
Now that number could be heading down even more if the NHL’s linesmen are stepping in to prevent certain fights.
The players have repeatedly voted that they want fighting to remain in the game and that’s something the league will be unlikely to change for now. That could be why we’re starting to see these “death by 10,000 paper cuts” guidelines and rules that pertain to fighting. They’re small changes, but they’re looking fairly effective so far with decreased fighting numbers.
Additionally, many teams are moving away from using designated enforcers, which could further bring fighting numbers down.
The NHL doesn’t need fighting to sell itself anymore and it may be keeping new fans away. But those inside the game still feel that there’s a place for it. Without the likelihood of its outright elimination, maneuvers to keep it to a minimum could keep showing up each year.