Fighting Debate and League Discipline are Intertwined


In November 2011, the Boston Bruins were hosting the Buffalo Sabres. Late in the opening period, Milan Lucic lost control of the puck on a potential breakaway and Ryan Miller came out to play the puck in the faceoff circle. Lucic collided with Miller, knocking his mask off and leaving him with a concussion.

After the hit, there was the obligatory pushing and shoving, but not much else. In fact, the Sabres were widely criticized for not taking a stronger stand for their goaltender. Many felt they should have made the Bruins pay a physical price for taking liberties with their star netminder.

On some level the players must have been expecting the league to take action against Lucic. On some level, they must have thought there was no need to drop the gloves.

After all, a new sheriff was in town. Over the summer, Brendan Shanahan was named the new Head of Player Safety and with that nomination came promises of stricter, clearer enforcement.

Eventually, Shanahan reviewed the play and concluded nothing was amiss. Lucic received no supplemental punishment.

Miller missed 8 games as result of the hit, the Sabres failed to make the playoffs by only three points and, in the end, their players probably felt like they should have punched someone after all.

New heads of discipline, fancy video, new rules. For all the flash and promises, the league’s standard of discipline cannot be accused of being excessively consistent.

And this leaves players in a continuous state of limbo, always wondering how to react to a questionable play. Will the league intervene or should I take matters into my own hands?

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Mike Mildbury’s recent comments on fighting in hockey again put the topic on the front-burner.

“Much as I liked a good scrap in my day, [there are] too many issues here involving concussions, too many problems. The teams are going away from it. Let’s grow up and get rid of it” said the NBC Commentator.

He is right.

Too often the punchline in a Rodney Dangerfield joke, it is hard to continue justifying the place of fighting within the sport. The long-term consequences of concussions are increasingly well documented and continuing to allow fighting risks becoming both a moral and legal issue for the league

But, for fighting to be removed fully from the game, players have to feel confident that the league will protect them.

The rules and the punishments must be clear. Plays that are today categorized as “debatable” should no longer be open for debate. They should always result in punishment.

We must assume that, since this is the best league in the world, the guys on the ice actually know what they are doing. If they can deflect a puck at 100 mph, they can control their hits.

A player cannot have his head faced into a stanchion; a team cannot lose its star goaltender without consequence for the offender.

The league should ban fighting. But it should only do so in conjunction with stricter, clearer disciplinary guidelines.

Or else, the traditionalist prophecy that “the players won’t be able to protect themselves” will become self-fulfilling.