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ISSUE 121 VOL 9 PUBLISHED 11/30/2007

Inside the Lines: Gong show hockey

By Barrett Kennedy
Sports Editor

Friday, November 30, 2007

My family picked up some nosebleed seats for the Minnesota Wild versus the Vancouver Canucks hockey game over Thanksgiving break. We sat up where the seats seemingly disappear into the rafters, right next to the poor organist suffering from altitude sickness. Sitting so many rows up, I was momentarily unsure if I maybe mistakenly entered Madison Square Garden on fight night. While the Zambonis cleared the ice, the Wild's media squad showed a montage video that thematically rivaled the hype for a Tyson fight back in the early '90s.

The video on the scoreboard screens showed goal celebrations, crunching checks and glove saves. Oh, and it also played Mattias Ohlund's baseball-swing slash across the back of Mikko Koivu's leg. About 11 times. The slash occurred in a game five nights earlier in Vancouver, resulting in a cracked fibula for Koivu and a four-game suspension for Ohlund. The video concluded with a ringside bell, dinging for the start of round two. I grumbled and flashed back to my grandfather's favorite jab at this sport: "I went to the fights the other night, and a hockey game broke out."

Fighting is not the problem with the NHL, or any hockey league. There is a place for fighting in the game, but it cannot be allowed to replace the game. All week, the media soaked up Derek Boogaard quotes like nectar, projecting an Al Capone-style revenge was about to occur in the heart of St. Paul. Everywhere I went in the Xcel that night I passed people sporting Boogaard jerseys, the petit 45-year-old mothers were the most comical people to don the Wild enforcer's jersey. By the time I got to the Hockey Lodge, I half expected to see Boogaard's name stretched across the back of an All-Star jersey. Fighting shouldn't take away this much focus from the game.

As it turned out, Ohlund was still serving his suspension and none of the other Canucks would drop the gloves with Boogaard. Two recent minor league call-ups fought a decent scrap in the first period, somewhat assuaging the crowd's cries for revenge and allowing the game to flow normally. Two of the NHL's elite forwards, Minnesota's Marian Gaborik and Vancouver's Markus Naslund, displayed dominating performances of speed, finesse and craftiness as the two combined to score five of the game's six goals.

Unfortunately, most casual hockey fans misunderstand fighting, as it now gets lumped together with the senseless violence that has plagued the sport in recent years. There is a definite distinction between the fight in Wednesday's game and the slash in the previous game. The two actions cannot be condemned under a single umbrella critique of violence. Bluntly, the fight was prudent while the slash was moronic.

However, the prevalence of brutal hockey acts bordering on assault this 2007 calendar year makes this distinction difficult. Chris Simon and Jesse Boulerice earned 25-game suspensions apiece for their modest attempts to break hockey sticks over another man's jaw. Steve Downie, a fellow Philadelphia Flyer of Boulerice, was slapped with a 20-game suspension of his own after train wrecking Dean McAmmond. Check out the YouTube video of this collision if you feel like instantly remembering what it feels like to not being able to breathe. Ohlund, on the other hand, only got four games for cracking a man's leg bone.

The NHL is doing what it can to curb this senseless violence by doling out the heftiest suspensions in league history. But, brace yourself; fighting can help mitigate this violence as well. Enforcers are policemen on skates, and they can be highly effective.

Wayne Gretzky still notes the invaluable contributions his host of protective enforcers provided during his illustrious career. After winning the 1983 All-Star game MVP, Gretzky reportedly gifted the new car he'd won to Dave Semenko, the man commonly remembered as "Gretzky's bodyguard." The Great One recalled that if anyone took liberties against him, they would have to answer to players like Semenko, Marty McSorley and Dave Hunter, a trio of the toughest men to play the sport.

Fighting prevents players from taking liberties on the ice, like slashing Koivu in the back of the leg. In theory, the very presence of Boogaard on the Wild's bench should register in Ohlund's thought process: Slash Koivu, answer to Boogaard. The problem is that some NHL players are not accountable for their actions anymore.

Don Cherry, essentially Canada's equivalent to John Madden except more outspoken, contends that fighting must remain a part of the NHL. Others cite fighting as the cause of low American interest in the sport. But evidence shows that fighting is not going anywhere. The following day after the Wild's 4-2 loss to Vancouver, the team added Todd Fedoruk to the roster, a six foot two inch, 240 pound winger, to bolster the team's grittiness. Before last season's playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins traded for Georges Laraque, a veteran enforcer, to protect its young superstars, specifically Sydney Crosby. Similar to Gretzky's comments, Crosby noted the immediate impact Laraque had in freeing up space for him on the ice.

The days of "old time hockey" and the "Gordie Howe Hat Trick, scoring a goal and an assist plus getting in a fight in one game, probably will not return to our new NHL, but there remains a sense of pride and honor in fighting today. The NHL is making the right strides by continuing to hand down extensive suspensions for heinous slashes. Now all we need is for fans to relax a bit, calm their Canuck bloodlust, and realize that it is a long season. Keep a keen eye open for the real retribution against Ohlund in the coming months.

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