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NHL general managers meet this week to discuss how to 'civilize' fighting

It may take five years, perhaps 10, Lightning general manager Brian Lawton said, but the "legalized fighting" the NHL now condones likely will be eliminated.

"It's a fabric of the game right now," he said. "But every day society advances from a macro standpoint, I think it becomes more archaic."

In the meantime, the league's general managers, during three days of meetings beginning today in Naples, will discuss making fighting a little more civilized, or at least a little safer.

The main topic: perhaps mandate players keep helmets on during a fight.

Some players remove helmets when squaring off. That lessens the chance of punching plastic and injuring a hand, and Lightning center Jeff Halpern said it also is "a courtesy" among players who wear half shields to shed the extra facial protection.

"It's just an unfair advantage for the guy with the shield on," Halpern said.

Fighting's place in the game has been argued since the days of the bench-clearing brawls. The issue again got traction in March 2007 when NHL executive Colin Campbell said it was time to "ask the question" about whether fighting should be permitted.

It got even hotter in January when Don Sanderson, an Ontario senior league player, died after he struck his head on the ice during a fight. Shortly thereafter, AHL player Garrett Klotz had a seizure on the ice after being pounded in a brawl.

That prompted players association head Paul Kelly to tell reporters at last month's Conn Smythe Celebrities Dinner and Auction in Toronto that a rule requiring players to keep helmets on during a fight might be worth considering, while also requiring officials to step in if a helmet comes off.

"If it's true that when guys get hurled to the ice or tripped to the ice and bang their skull on the ice is where the real danger comes from, then maybe we can protect against that," Kelly said. "It's certainly something worth looking at."

"Absolutely, yes," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said. "If you can increase the safety if a player does get knocked out and is falling down, something catastrophic like that, if there's a way to do that, that's fine. How you mandate that, I still don't know."

The junior Ontario Hockey League might provide a clue.

Players receive a game misconduct and a one-game suspension for removing helmets or undoing chin straps during a fight. The same penalties apply to a player who removes his opponent's helmet, and officials intervene immediately if a helmet is dislodged.

"It's worth discussing, keeping helmets on," Lawton said. "You always want to protect your players first and foremost."

Still, "with how big and strong and dangerous these guys are getting," he wondered about practicality:

"Who wants to jump in there when (Lightning enforcer) David Koci is throwing rights?"

Fighting is a tricky subject.

No Tampa Bay player asked said he believed it should be eliminated, and coach Rick Tocchet said plenty of players, if they know they won't have to "pay the mortgage," are willing to play "cheap and ugly."

"There has to be consequences," he said. "You might get hit in the jaw with a punch, or you might get knocked out. That's the intimidation element you have to have. Now, to just go out there and start swinging at guys and being reckless, I don't think we need that in the game."

Commissioner Gary Bettman agreed, telling reporters at All-Star Weekend that though "I don't think there's any appetite to abolish fighting from the game … what we're going to have to take a good hard look at is what I described … as the rules of engagement."

General managers will take a look this week.

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

NHL general managers meet this week to discuss how to 'civilize' fighting 03/08/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 9, 2009 8:06am]
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