National Hockey League players soon will be asked if they want to abolish fighting. At a meeting here during the all-star break two weeks ago, the NHL Players Association instructed the teams' union representatives to report in June with a sense of the membership on whether the union should press the league for measures to eliminate fighting.
Rick Green, the Washington Capitals' player representative, said, "It was brought up with the words 'abolishment of fighting,' and we reps were asked to get ideas from players on our teams. The Paul Mulvey thing was getting quite a bit of coverage. So we felt it was in the best interests of everybody involved--the players, the league, the media--to take a look."
Green said he hasn't asked his teammates about it yet. Personally, he is, like most hockey people, ambivalent on the subject.
He detests the game's goons.
To control what he calls "the dummy acts," Green thinks all three officials, the linesmen as well as the referee, should have authority to call all penalties. Now, only the referee can assess penalties for fouls such as tripping, high-sticking and fighting. That is akin to asking one man to call every foul in a basketball game with 12 men playing three times as fast on a court four times the normal size.
Perhaps, Green says, the penalty for fighting should be raised from five minutes to 10.
The fighting clearly bothers him.
And yet he wouldn't want to play hockey without the possibility of fighting.
This takes some explaining, and Green will explain later, right after he answers the question that has been bugging me for years. Why do hockey officials stand and watch while two players grab each other's sweaters and proceed to bash each other in the face? Why don't the officials leap in and stop the fight, as they do in other games?
"Because," said Green, 26, a six-year veteran, an eminently sensible guy, "it's part of the game."
Part of the game is to rearrange someone's nostrils?
"It's a release," Green said. "You may see only the fight. I can guarantee you that something preceded it. Cheap shots, tripping the referee didn't see, aggravation that shouldn't be going on. Finally, when the referee doesn't do anything, you got to turn around and punch the guy."
So a punch is thrown, in a kind of vigilante action. Why does the official just stand there and let 20 punches be thrown?
"Not too many guys get hurt too bad," Green said. He touched a finger to his cheekbone, where three or four scars were within finger's reach. "The referees will jump in and stop it if they see it's too bad."
There are, I said, aggravations and frustrations and cheap shots in other sports, and yet fighting is not considered part of the game, is not considered a release, is, in fact, punishable by fine and suspension. And officials are ordered, as we see in the NFL, to put their bodies between the combatants immediately.
Green said, "I know," and shrugged, saying no more.
The NHL still harbors goons and dummies, to use Green's descriptions of men sometimes heroically called enforcers and intimidators. But Green believes the incidents of real violence are blown out of proportion. It is not as bad as it used to be, he says, and the continuing collapse of the Philadelphia Flyers is proof that bully-boy tactics no longer succeed.
Saying that, Green yet will admit the league has a problem.
"Good players have to worry that some guy who can't play is out to intimidate them and throw them off their game. That's bad. You just can't have these goons running around doing their dummy acts. That's not hockey."
People who believe hockey teams use fights to sell tickets point out that film clips provided by the teams to local TV sports departments often include fights in the "highlights."
"I know. There's no question that a lot of people come to just watch fights," Green said. "And that's too bad, because they're missing a lot of finer points of the game."
Which brings us to Green's seemingly paradoxical belief that fighting is ugly and yet a necessary element of what can be a beautiful game.
Fighting, Green says, is better than a stick in the eye.
Let's say there are rules against fighting. Green says the frustrations, aggravations and cheap shots would still take place. And if a goon is going to be thrown out and fined, why should he go quietly with a simple little no-harm fistfight? At such an expense, the goon wouldn't stop to fistfight; he would aim to maim with his lethal stick.
"Gooning has never been part of my game and never will be," Green said. "But sometimes you have to punch some guy if he's taking advantage of you or stepping too far. You can't eliminate fighting, because it's a good release. It's not all bad."
Giving the linesmen more authority, Green said, would be a good first step toward controlling some of the stuff that produces fights.
"The linesmen are able to see a lot of things the referee can't. That way all the pressure wouldn't be on the referee to catch every little thing. A lot of cheap shots go on that if the linesmen had some authority those cheap shots might not develop into fights."
Fights are forbidden in European hockey. Hockey there is all finesse.
So we are led to believe.
Green would wise us up.
"Fighting isn't allowed, but they can be pretty cruel with the sticks. It's finesse and fundamentals, no question about that, but a lot of the time, when they know they can't fight, they are going to stick you and hurt you."
A hockey stick in the eye. Or the throat. Or across the back of the neck.
"Some guys wouldn't think twice about spearing you in the stomach," Green said. "It takes a different breed to do that, but . . . "
He left the sentence undone but understood.