What a great day it was for the anti-fighting brigade.
On Friday, Flyers goalie Ray Emery chummed the waters with his vicious assault on Capitals goalie Braden Holtby. The one-sided bout sent the small but vocal group (mostly media-based) that is opposed to brawling into a frenzy of grandstanding and virtual ink spilling, not just about the beating, but also about the NHL’s inability, or unwillingness, to sanction Emery for his dirty deed.
The indignation pretty much leapt off of pages. On Twitter, Kevin Dupont, of The Boston Globe wrote, “NHL Player Safety has made huge strides last 2 yrs. It cannot allow Emery to skate on his Holtby beatdown. Travesty.”
“I love hockey, but the disgrace in Philly last night is a perfect example of why, to millions of people, the NHL is not a serious pro sport,” offered Steve Maich, the publisher and editor of Sportsnet.
They’re right to be appalled by this incident, of course. As far as optics go, watching one man pummel an entirely unwilling opponent is about as bad as it gets. Even a fighting advocate like myself is not conflicted on this point.
Emery vs. Holtby wasn’t what Brian Burke would have called a good fight. It wasn’t about accountability or The Code. It was about one frustrated man who had allowed four goals on 15 shots taking out his embarrassment on another player who wanted no part of it.
So yeah, it was a “bad” fight. And it might even precipitate a rule change, much the way Matt Cooke’s head shot on a defenseless Marc Savard led to new guidelines dictating where a player can and cannot be hit.
But one stupid decision doesn’t change the course of the debate, nor does it cede ground to the anti-fighting crowd. Despite what people like Damien Cox might think, this isn’t black/white, either/or. It is entirely possible to pick and choose what type of fighting is acceptable within the framework of the game, just like it was with violent hitting.
If those opposed to fighting want to challenge the general managers and Board of Governors to provide the league’s Department of Player Safety with the tools to deal with outlier situations such as Emery vs. Holtby, fine. That’s a worthy pursuit. But the truth is that any new rule in this area would rarely be tested. No one has ever accused me of having a long memory, so feel free to chime in if I’ve missed something obvious here, but the last case I can remember in which one participant so clearly did not want to take part was the infamous 1998 Jeff Kugel incident. That was in the Ontario Hockey League, not the NHL. (And no, Phil Kessel this past preseason doesn’t count — he made the decision to come back at John Scott with his stick and was suspended three games for it.)
A small victory like a new rule won’t be enough for the anti-fighters, of course. (That crowd won’t be satisfied until merely dropping the gloves is an automatic five games.) But it’s something. And even a supporter of fighting has to recognize that offering the Shanaban boys some judicial leeway for extreme cases like this is reasonable ground to give up.
There has to be an element of honor to fighting. If someone like Emery chooses to abandon it, he should pay a price.
Beyond that, though? Good luck. The voices that really count in this matter — those of the players themselves — have already spoken. Until they decide that the league is better capable of protecting them than they are themselves, fighting is here to stay.