Hockey Fighters May Face New Code
GMs Focus on Draws, Scraps Immediately After Clean Checks

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

PHILADELPHIA, March 11 -- As a player, George McPhee was one of hockey's toughest pound-for-pound fighters. As the general manager of the Washington Capitals, he's among a growing number of NHL executives seeking to curb the increasing number of fights.

During their meetings in Naples, Fla., this week, the league's general managers recommended rule changes that would assess additional penalty minutes to players involved in "staged" fisticuffs -- those that occur following a faceoff -- and punish players who initiate fights after clean hits.

"The consensus was that the players and the managers are comfortable with where our game is and the role fights have in our game," said McPhee, who sat on a six-member subcommittee that examined fighting. "Often times, it prevents worse things from happening in our sport. You can't run out of bounds in hockey. That said, there are trends that appear from time to time that should be addressed."

Under the proposal, players who engage in staged fights would receive a 10-minute misconduct in addition to a five-minute major for fighting.

"They are not the fights that occur in the heat of the game that we find acceptable," said McPhee, whose Capitals face the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night at Wachovia Center.

Another proposal, McPhee said, would ask referees to issue instigator penalties against players who seek retribution for legal hits.

"There's nothing wrong with a good clean check, as long as it's legal," McPhee said. "More instigators should be called in those instances."

According to statistics compiled by the NHL in February, there have been 1.2 fighting majors per game this season, up from 0.75 in 2005-06. Nearly 22 percent of fights have occurred immediately after a faceoff, a 30 percent increase over the past eight years. And almost 24 percent of fights occurred in defense of a teammate, a 27 percent increase from 2000-01.

If approved by the rules committee and board of governors, the general managers' proposals could go into effect next season. Had the changes already been implemented, more penalty minutes would have been doled out during the Capitals' 2-1 victory in Nashville on Tuesday.

Midway through a rough first period, the Capitals' Donald Brashear and Nashville's Wade Belak engaged in a bloody bout that ended with Belak dropping Brashear to the ice with a straight left. Moments later, Capitals winger Matt Bradley and Jordin Tootoo dropped their gloves. Under the proposal, it's possible all four combatants would have received 10-minute misconducts in addition to five minutes for fighting because the fights occurred immediately after faceoffs.

"That's a fight that is unnecessary," McPhee said, referring to the Bradley-Tootoo brawl.

Bradley, however, said he doesn't see the problem when both players are willing to drop the gloves.

"They obviously have their opinions," Bradley said of the general managers. "But the way I look at it -- we're all big boys -- if we're willing to fight, that's part of the game."

Later in Tuesday's game, Belak initiated a fight with Capitals defenseman John Erskine, who appeared to be caught off guard by Belak's aggression. Under stricter enforcement of the instigator rule, Belak could have received an additional two-minute penalty and a 10-minute misconduct in addition to five minutes for fighting.

Flyers enforcer Riley Cote said he's concerned about allowing referees to determine which fights are staged.

"What's a staged fight?" Cote said. "Something could have happened in a previous game or on a previous shift."

Cote also said increased enforcement of the instigator rule would make it tougher for him to police games.

"You already have guys around the league like [Toronto's] Ryan Hollweg or [Ottawa's] Jarkko Ruutu, they make a cheap hit and you want to fight them, but you don't want to take an instigator penalty," Cote said. "They just smile and laugh at you, because they are protected by the rule."

McPhee said the general managers also discussed penalizing players for removing their helmets during fights. But that topic has been tabled pending further information.

Capitals Notes: Brashear is questionable against Philadelphia after suffering a sprained knee Tuesday. Flyers center Daniel Brière is expected to return from his latest groin injury. The Flyers have been assessed the second-most fighting majors with 62. The Capitals have the third fewest with 26.

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