When Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ray Emery left the crease, barreled 200 feet down the ice and began to throw punches to the head of unwilling foe Braden Holtby on Nov. 1, there was an immediate uproar across the hockey community.
When Emery wasn’t disciplined by the NHL for his assault of the Washington Capitals’ netminder aside from the 29 penalty minutes, including a 10-minute game misconduct he received, the outrage grew so loud that it prompted the league’s 30 general managers to consider implementing a rule that forbids goaltenders from engaging in fisticuffs.
But not everyone believes that prohibiting goaltenders from crossing the red line to fight would address the underlying reasons behind such scuffles.
“I don’t even understand the logistics behind what they’re trying to do with taking goalie fights out,” Holtby said this week, ahead of Washington’s game against the Flyers on Sunday, the teams’ first meeting since the incident. “You’re a player, you should be treated as one that way. What happened between myself and Ray Emery had nothing to do with goalies. That was more just an overall hockey problem not a goalie problem.”
Fighting in all respects is a hot-button topic for the NHL but remains widely accepted by top officials and players. What made this particular incident worthy of criticism was that even though Holtby tried to back away and clearly had no desire to fight, Emery lunged at him and let his fists fly.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman cited the lack of any existing rule in his decision not to suspend Emery for his actions. But when the league’s general managers met briefly in Toronto last month, there was an appetite for instituting penalties on goaltenders who drop the gloves, perhaps even an automatic 10-game suspension. The group is expected to discuss it further during a three-day gathering in March in Boca Raton, Fla.
“With regards to goalie fighting, we’d like to do something,” Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland told reporters in Toronto in November. “We don’t really like to see goalies fighting.”
Despite multiple requests for comment, Capitals General Manager George McPhee has declined to discuss the issue at length or share his opinion on the matter.
According to data available at Hockeyfights.com there have been only 12 regular season fights involving goaltenders in 13 seasons dating to 2000-01.
“I think sometimes there’s knee-jerk reactions to everything. It just seems we look at one incident and all of a sudden want to make a rule change,” Capitals goaltending coach Olie Kolzig said. “It rarely happens nowadays. I don’t know if they need to put a rule in like that. If . . . the league or the department of player safety feels like a suspension is warranted then that might be one way to deal with it, but I don’t think they need to put a rule in.”
More often than not, altercations between goaltenders arise when all the skaters on the ice are involved in scrums or one goaltender comes to the aid of a teammate. Once one netminder enters the fray, the other feels compelled to join teammates to make it a balanced fight.
Recently retired NHL goaltender Martin Biron is the only other netminder who has dropped the gloves with Emery, though the circumstances on Feb. 22, 2007, when Biron was playing for the Buffalo Sabres against the Ottawa Senators, were far different from what Holtby experienced. After Buffalo captain Chris Drury was elbowed to the head and knocked out of the game by Ottawa’s Chris Neil, the next shift broke out in bedlam. As all the skaters began fighting, Biron met Emery at center ice.
“When Drury got hit it was more about, ‘Okay now we’re a team, we’re all one.’ Your captain is down, somebody’s got to respond,” said Biron, now an analyst for MSG Network’s New York Rangers broadcasts. “I didn’t care if I’m 175 pounds and there’s another guy on the other side that’s 230. I’m going to do my best and show that I care and that I want to support my team and my teammates.”
That fight was between willing combatants, unlike the goalie brawl that occurred in the Caps-Flyers game.
“There should be a certain level of respect. I think a guy like Ray Emery, he’s obviously a tough customer [with] a boxing background, but if he wanted to prove something, fight Steve Oleksy. Fight one of our tough guys,” said Kolzig, who fought fellow netminder Byron Dafoe in a brawl between the Capitals and Boston Bruins in 1998. “Braden was unwilling and didn’t want to. It wasn’t like Braden chopped somebody to instigate it.”
Biron likened Emery’s actions to those of Bruins forward Shawn Thornton, who slew-footed Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik and then punched him twice while he lay on the ground during a game on Dec. 7, knocking him unconscious. On Saturday, Thornton received a 15-game suspension.
“It’s not a matter of goaltenders fighting. I call that an assault,” Biron said of what happened between Emery and Holtby. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 200 feet away and you skate all the way down to do it or if you do what Shawn Thornton did the other night. It’s still considered an assault even though you’re five feet away. To make it so goalies can’t skate down the length of the ice wouldn’t do anything to fix that.”