Kids understand, sometimes more than adults

Here's the scene.

Two NHL players. One 6-foot-4, 235 pounds. The other, 6-5, 241. One player lands a punch square on the eye of the other. The punch breaks multiple bones in the player's face and renders him instantly unconscious. As he falls backward onto the ice, his head hits with such force that it fractures his skull and tears an artery. Later that night, he dies.

Now what?

This is a morbid scenario that you have to assume the NHL has thought of before and tucked away into a filing cabinet for future use. It's not far fetched. People get in confrontations every day across the world -- at a bar, at an intersection, anywhere. Someone throws a punch and stunningly it kills the other person. A fluke. And those people aren't world-class athletes who weigh 240 pounds and are on skates. And they aren't on national television with thousands of children watching the incident during the game or over and over on subsequent news reports.

Fighting is so much a part of hockey's image that for the casual sports fan it is the dominant principle of the sport. Baseball has the home run, basketball the dunk, football the hard tackle or great touchdown catch. Hockey has fighting. Bare-knuckle fighting is still alive in the NHL, and it's legal. In fact, you can do it more than once in the same game.

For those of us who love the game, we see it as a small part, but thrilling nonetheless. No one gets up to buy $8 nachos when Chris Clark and Dallas Drake begin an NHL punch-in-the-grill contest. Especially the kids.

I remember back in 1973, going to see the Johnstown Jets play in an Eastern Amateur Hockey League game against the Long Island Ducks at Cambria County War Memorial Arena, the same rink where they filmed "Slap Shot." There was a colossal bench-clearing brawl, and the image that seared itself on my brain that winter's day was the sight of a man, who in retrospect appeared to be about 64 years old, participating in the brawl by holding down another player on the ice. This was the pre-Just for Men era. His hair was all gray and he looked like an extra on "Cocoon 4." If you've seen "The Jimmy Kimmel Show" on ABC, and you've seen Jimmy's Uncle Frank the security guard, that's the guy.

When my boys play their nightly game of mini-stick hockey in the family room, the proceedings always include the dropping of the gloves and sticks and a family room punch-in-the-face contest. It's all restrained, but the act is clear. Kids like fights. As parents, how do we deal with this? What do we tell our kids about fighting?

Here's what I think and how I approach it. Kids are smart. When it comes to make believe and television, they're rather savvy. Not all kids but most know what's real and what's not. And fighting can't be disguised. Drugs, sex, and rock and roll have some hidden pitfalls that can be camouflaged to middle school kids, but fighting is clear-cut. If I punch you in the face, it will hurt. Even if you've never been punched, you know that.

My biggest concern is how fighting affects the overall tone of the sport, especially minor and youth hockey. We've had a parent kill another parent after a practice. We still have coaches fighting coaches after games, parents fighting parents, and players sometimes fighting players. And this happens despite fighting not being allowed in the game. But is fighting such a part of the sport's culture that there is a trickle-down effect? The Stanley Cup playoffs is the best hockey in the world, and there are hardly ever any fights. Do we need them?

The pros: I've played almost every sport, and hockey is the most emotional and passionate. It's why people snap on occasion. The joy, the anger and the blood boiling the sport causes is like no other. If fighting were legal in baseball, there would be a lot fewer batters hit with pitches. It's actually a deterrent to worse things. The fights are fought mostly fairly and with a sort of honor. Kids stand and cheer, but that doesn't mean they're running to the playground and kicking Sparky's butt the next day. Dave Schultz, "The Hammer" said last week he's never been in a fight off the ice. In a nine-month NHL season, fights are a needed attraction for the casual fan.

The con: That scenario at the top of the page.

Paul Stewart knows a thing or 300 about fighting. He made it to the NHL as a player because he fought, then became judge and jury of fighting when he became an NHL referee. "Stewy" retired after last season. I caught up with him last week to find out what's up and get his take on fighting.

Paul Stewart's new job: I coach hockey to 5- and 6-year-old kids in Walpole, Mass., on the weekends; I supervise and scout for referee talent for the AHL; and for the Boston Bruins I run the charitable foundation for Jeremy Jacobs where we try to enhance the lives of children in the area and I'm moving into broadcasting! I work on Boston Bruins broadcasts on NESN. Look out Barry Melrose.

Oh, by the way; Barry Melrose is now an owner. He and a group bought the United Hockey League team in Glens Falls, N.Y. The Adirondack IceHawks.

Why the NHL has fighting: There is something in people when they are competing, whether it's the last parking spot on Christmas Eve or fighting for the puck in the corner. There tends to be aggressiveness. Conn Smythe once said if you can't beat them in the alleys, you wouldn't beat them on the rink. So I think it's the tradition of it. Instead of debating this subject, they should focus on that. The amount of fighting has gone down, and it's not like it used to be with the Flyers of the '70s when they used it as a tactic.

Explaining fighting to kids: It's like the playground. There is something about bullies, something about people who try to intimidate. When I played, I was the guy who made sure my teammates were not feeling intimidated and they could go about their business. Fighting was my ticket to get to the NHL. There are players on a 20-man roster that don't feel necessarily courageous. They'll never admit that they are afraid, but when I played, it was like the parting of the Red Sea on the bench. There I was, and I was expected to go out and help those who were afraid play the game, to let no one take their lunch money.

The NHL and fighting: The NHL told me that when I called games as a referee, fighting was down. I think it's because when I called games, I'd say to guys, "You want to fight that guy? Go ahead." A lot of people get false courage when the linesmen are there to break it up. I'd tell my linesmen the next time these two guys start pushing after a whistle, step back. I made it so they had to either fight or back off.

Have you heard anything about the movie "Miracle"? I'm going to be horribly disappointed if they butchered the story. Of course, I'm not sure who could surpass the performances of Karl Malden as Herb Brooks and Steve Guttenburg as Jim Craig in that movie that came out right after those Olympics.
Keep up the good work,
Joe Gleeson

I saw "Miracle" last week. Really Good. No F-bombs, so you can take your Pee Wee, Squirt, Mite or In-house hockey son or daughter to see it. Kurt Russell did one of his best acting jobs as Herb Brooks. I thought he nailed him. I don't really remember Kurt Russell acting before. He's always been Kurt Russell: cool guy, looks great, lots of charisma and fun. He acts here, and you can tell his heart was really in it. Whoever was casting director did an outstanding job. The accents were good, everyone could skate, and they did a real nice job explaining the tone of the times at the beginning. I'm hosting a special on ESPN Classic called "Classic Big Ticket: Miracle on Ice" Jim Craig and Mike Eruzione (Feb. 5, 9 p.m. ET). Craig and Eruzione take us behind the scenes of the game against the Soviet Union and tell other stories about their run to the gold medal at the 1980 Olympics.

Hey Bucci,
I never knew what mad cow disease looked like until I saw the Dallas Stars new third jerseys. Those sweaters are terrible.
Sunny Baltimore

They don't televise well, Adam. They look much better in person.

Roman Cechmanek IS Travis Bickle. I'm just waiting for him to show up at the rink in a beat up taxi sporting a Mohawk. Does Jodie Foster watch hockey?
Ben Belcourt
Manchester, N.H.

Jodie Foster is a season ticket holder of the Tri-City Storm of the U.S. Hockey League. (U.S. Tier I junior hockey). Her favorite player is John Dingle.

Went past a McDonald's the other day in a tough part of Minneapolis, and the sign said, "CHICKEN PARM IS BACK." I had to get somewhere, and so did not have time to stop in and see if Ray was taking orders or flipping burgers.
Judy Stack-Nelson

Ray's son Matthew is a promising goalie who was drafted by the Prince George Cougars of the WHL last spring. Any parent of a growing goalie knows it costs $234,000 a year to equip a goalie with gear. Ray is no different. He also sells Avon products door to door in Trail, British Columbia.

Over the weekend the Hakan-Hannukah Song replaced "Du Gamla Du Fria" as the Swedish national anthem and we are required to sing it at all of Podes games.
In Podes We Trust!
Christian Andreasen
Umeå, Sweden

After reading your latest column with that song Hakan-Hannukah, I can definitely say you're crazy, yet still very entertaining. By the way, your old favorite, Espen Knutsen, has signed with Djurgården for three years. He suffered a season-ending injury in his second game.
Med vänlig hälsning (yours sincerely),
Thomas Olafsen

John --
For me, living in Sweden and both being Jewish and a big NHL fan at the same time, your Hakan-Hannukah song was the most joyful reading since I read in the newspaper that Hakan Loob and the Flames had won the Cup the night before -- long before anyone had heard about the Internet. Greetings from Stockholm.

John --
I'm a Kings fan. I got injured just watching the game the other night.
Love yo,

I would give my right hip so Derek Sanderson could have one good hip. I would give both of my knees to Cam Neely. I would give Louis Sleigher my abdominal muscle. I would give Nevin Markwart my shoulder. A couple of tears fell down my face as No. 8 went skyward last week.
Craig Taclof
Orlando, Fla.

Last week, I donated my spleen to Moe Lemay. He didn't say why he needed it. I just gave it to him.

You need to realize you have NO CLOUT in the hockey world and there is no way Neely will get inducted to the HOF averaging just over one point per game in his short and pathetic career. No one cares how much you whine and cry, you will not be listened to for good reason. Maybe Neely can get himself a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame instead?

I'm not looking for clout from the hockey world. I'm looking for an autographed picture of Dan Cloutier. That's it. When I get that, I will retire and begin my search for clout as a rodeo clown. Casey, can you help me?

Bruins games in Boston are just not the same. It's tough to watch a game in Montreal and hear the fans; you can tell that these are still the real fans, watching the game on the edge of their seats. The Canadiens fans survived the move to their new arena. The true Bruins fans are still frozen at the ticket counter shocked by the prices, and every day Jeremy Jacobs walks by wondering: "Who are these people?"
Tyngsboro, Mass.

Darren Pang told me the same thing about Montreal, that they did a great job with their new arena and it is still a great atmosphere.

JB --
Last Tuesday I was in Arizona and saw the Vancouver Canucks v. the Phoenix Coyoots (as the Mullet would say). I had great seats in their beautiful new arena, and the Swede count was high. The Sedins, Ohlund, and the best player in the world, Mr. Markus Naslund. Were P.J. Axelsson sharing nachos with me, I dare say it would have been Heaven. I thought to myself, "Could this be any better?" Then you and Melrose appeared on the Jumbotron. And then, for no good reason you started in with that idiotic howling thing. And they joined in. There is NO howling in hockey. None. Stop it.
Christopher Vogler

I wasn't howling. I was singing the Ben Folds song, "There's Always Someone Cooler Than You." Ben sings: "Cooler than youuuuuuuuuuuuuuu." Find it. Listen to it. Live it. Adhere Ben. He has clout.

John Buccigross is the host of NHL2Night, which airs on ESPN2. His e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.