Rats haven't taken over Europe -- yet

In the 2006-07 season, there were 23 fights in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) -- until this season known as the Swedish Elite League -- and in the five after that, the number of fights has ranged between 25 and 36 each season. In a 12-team league with a 55-game regular season, that comes down to about one fight in every 10 or 11 games.

Not many. And while there are those who regularly raise their voices for lesser penalties for fighting, fighting as intimidation isn't close to being rooted into European hockey.

"I don't think there are any major trends, as far as fighting is concerned, either way," says Hakan Loob, CEO of Färjestad BK of the SHL, told ESPN.com in Swedish. "I think the situation in Sweden today is what it's been like for a long time. We've never had a fight culture here. The players have accepted the fact that if you throw your gloves, you get a match penalty."

The influx of dozens of NHLers brought fights to Sweden during the NHL lockout in 2004-05, but "other than that, we've been sheltered from that," he says.

This fall, however, Färjestad did sign Devin DiDiomete, a Calgary Flames seventh-round pick in 2006 and a player who racked up triple-digit penalty minutes in the OHL, the AHL, the ECHL and the British league before joining the Swedish league. He earned his contract after a tryout, but he had zero points in 12 games and was finally shown the door after a fight in a game against Vaxjo Lakers in which he had, until his fight, played zero minutes.

"We won't sign players that are just tough guys if they don't fit our style," Loob says. "The game has got so much faster in recent years. There's no room for a player whose only contribution to the team is to play tough. The players we sign here come from the AHL or college hockey, and they're often good but small players. You have to be able to skate here. You absolutely must be able keep up."

That's the picture in most of the European countries, even in Finland, which is generally considered the most North American of the European leagues.

"The Finnish style of hockey -- if you take away the fighting -- is similar to North American style, but when it comes to fighting, they have a strict approach to it: If you fight, you'll be out of not just that game but the next game as well," says former NHLer Doug Shedden, who coached both Helsinki IFK and Jokerit between 2005 and 2008, was head coach of Team Finland in 2008 and is now in his sixth year with EV Zug in the Swiss league. "Which is pretty strict. That takes a lot of fighting out of the game.

"In Switzerland, it's up to the referees' discretion whether they kick a player out of that game, and you won't be suspended for the next game. Now, there aren't that many fights here, anyway."

When Shedden took over Helsinki IFK, his team had had 11 fights in the regular season and two more in the playoffs. The following season, when he was behind the Jokerit bench, Shedden's team had only one fight, by Ryan VandenBussche, a former NHL enforcer on a one-month tryout.

"The only fighter I had was VandenBussche, but a tough guy in Finland would have been a player like Sami Helenius [who fought in the NHL, too], but he was also our fifth defenseman," Shedden told ESPN.com. "It's definitely a different definition from North America, where fighters are lucky to get two minutes a game. Over here, we don't have any players who just sit and fight. If you have a tough guy, they have to be able to play a regular shift.

"Now, Helsinki IFK picked up Gillies this year -- it's kind of a joke to do that anymore, really."

Yes, IFK did sign Trevor Gillies, an enforcer who played with the Anaheim Ducks and the New York Islanders. In Finland, he played three games, averaged 4:18 per game, and got 54 penalty minutes. He also sucker punched Helsinki Jokerit forward Jarkko Ruutu -- resulting in his ejection from the game and a three-game suspension -- and was thrown out of his third game for spearing.

Of course, players such as Ruutu are just as much in the heart of the fighting debate. Many people think that Ruutu -- known for his yapping and getting under the skin of his opponents with chippy play -- got what he deserved and that Gillies sucker punching him was exactly the right thing to do.

"In the NHL, Ruuts had to back it up some nights," Shedden says. "Because you can't chirp and dive there without defending yourself. In Finland, he can get away with whatever he wants, and if he looks himself in the mirror, he knows he dives a lot. That's not a part of the game, but in Europe, he gets away with his shenanigans."

At the same time, Shedden also says he doesn't see the pests, or the rats, taking over the game.

"I don't see a lot of rats here. Hockey is very fast paced here. It's not very physical, but it's fast. When a player like [Zug's] Kyle Wellwood calls it fast, you know it's fast," Shedden says.

"I don't see a lot of trash talking because over here, the referees won't let you do it. I always laugh because the refs are always saying, 'No talking. Don't talk.' I call this the 'No Communication League' -- they only want to communicate on their terms."

Loob says there are fewer and fewer pests in the SHL, too.

Low tolerance for fighting by the leagues, and handing out match penalties and suspensions for fighting, is one explanation for the lack of fights in Sweden, he says. Another is the fact that hockey just doesn't have the same fight culture in Europe, except that certain pockets have had it and do have it. In the UK, a player recently received a 47-game suspension for a fight that continued off the ice, and brawls are not uncommon. That's what it looked like in Germany 15 years ago, says Loob.

"They used to have a lot of North American players who wanted to intimidate us Swedes, but that's gone now," says Loob, who has also played an integral role in setting up and growing the European Trophy, a preseason club tournament with 32 teams from seven different countries.

In both Sweden and Switzerland, hockey is marketed simply as an intense and fast-paced sport. What both Loob and Shedden are concerned with is that the game will lose some of the emotion it's famous for if it is less physical.

"Let's face it: Anything that's good hitting these days will be penalized, because the referees want to avoid being criticized for not calling it," Shedden says. "Some teams in Switzerland don't even finish their checks anymore. They simply chase the puck. It's all about puck pressure now."

"There has to be an element of battle, and maybe we've been a little too strict recently because when emotions then flare up, it's difficult for the referees to handle the situation," Loob says.

To a certain extent, it's the same story in Europe as it is in the NHL. Nobody wants to get rid of fighting completely because, sometimes, emotions get the best of the best of us.

"If we have a puck battle and you elbow me, then we fight. After the fight, it's over and forgotten. We had our say and it's forgotten. That's great," Shedden says. "What we want to get rid of is the 6-foot-5 guys that go out for no reason, drop their gloves when nothing's ever happened. We don't need that. That's just a sideshow."