While watching ESPN's Pardon the Interruption Wednesday, Mike Wilbon took the words right out of my mouth. The NHL needs to pay attention to the punishments levied by the NFL on the New Orleans Saints after the bounty scandal.
It is extremely hard to evaluate if a player hitting because it is part of the game, or a player hitting with intent to injure, especially in two sports where hitting is so prevalent. But the NFL felt they had enough evidence of the Saints promoting injuring opposing players with cash incentives to ban a defensive coordinator indefinitely, suspend a head coach for an entire year, a general manager eight games and an assistant coach for six games.
If a player is going in for a hit, in the NFL or NHL, are they not planning to inflict some pain on the opposing player? Of course they are. No, they do not want to see them leave on a stretcher and ruin their career, but the idea of making that player think twice when he sees you, or possibly see him leave the game is floating around in their head. It is the difference between contact sports and non-contact sports and just part of the game.
It is foolish to think that there is not some kind of "bounty systems" in most locker rooms. I have seen it in local recreational hockey all the way up to the professional ranks. Not on the scale of tens of thousands of dollars, like the Saints, but maybe a, "Hey, if you get a nice hit on so-and-so, I'll get your dinner."
Football and hockey are much different sports though. In football, you cannot play without contact. We saw that during the Pro Bowl this year. Defensive players and offensive lineman make their money based on how effectively they can use their bodies to push, slam, crush and toss other players.
Hockey, on the other hand, is played in other countries and even during the Olympics with much less contact and fighting is illegal. Players fighting in international or Olympic hockey receive a match penalty and are ejected from the game.
The product the NHL produces has a reputation it may not want. If you talk to a casual NHL fan, or even someone who necessarily a fan but watches it at the bar or whenever it's dollar beer night, what will you hear? Probably something like, "I go for the fights and big hits." But hardcore fans know the NHL is so much more than that, and this is why they should learn from the NFL's staunch stance taken against "bounties."
The NFL did not want that reputation, and they made that very, very clear.
Don't get me wrong, when watching a Coyotes game I am the first person to get on my feet for a good scrap or big hit. Heck, Raffi Torres and Paul Bissonnette are my favorite players on the Coyotes roster. But isn't the role of a fighter, like Bissonnette, basically that of a bounty hunter.
It's in the unwritten rules of hockey. You take out our guy, we are going to send a bigger, badder guy to come get you. Bissonnette signed a two-year extension in October and makes over $600,000 a year. He has only tallied eight points in his career.
There are kids all over North America who have made junior and minor league team rosters simply because they dropped the gloves without question, and embraced an enforcers role.
Enforcers usually drift around the NHL, never staying with a team too long, further adding to their bounty hunter like persona.
"I did it because it was my job but I hated it," said Georges Laraque in a CNN interview in 2011. "I hated to fight. I hated the pressure. I hated to be called a goon, and an animal. I hated promoting violence." He continued to say, "For as many years that they [an enforcer] played, many of those guys didn't make much money, so there are not options for them afterwards. You have to fight to live when life after hockey is over, and there's nothing for you."
With player safety and concussions coming to the forefront in recent years, is it possible to change the game and without changing the framework and essence that brought fans in the first place?
Both NFL commissioner Rodger Goodell and first year NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan have taken huge strides in improving player safety by handing out sometimes heavy, but appropriate suspensions and fines that send a message. Shanahan has even gone as far to release videos with audio of him explaining exactly what the player did, and what rules he broke.
Fighting has taken a big drop off in the NHL since the 2008-2009 season. That season there were 734 fights in comparison to projected 550 fights during the current, 2011-2012 season.
What should open the eyes of fans, players, coaches and officials all over the NHL is something that went largely ignored in the offseason by the mainstream media. Three former NHL players died, all who filled the role of enforcers on their various teams.
Whether or not fighting can be taken out of the NHL has been a topic of heated debate between hockey purist and those worried about the long-term safety of players for years. Science has advanced and showed us the lingering effects of multiple concussions, but it is something that has been in the game since its inception.
There is no easy solution to the debate over fighting in the NHL, but one thing is for sure. The NFL made an example of the Saints, and there won't be any place for illegal, under the table bounty hunting in football ever again.