Hockey's 'violence dilemma' again at the forefront

For three days, it has been a brewing tempest, an ugly, vicious spat between NHL players played out on the front pages of the dailies in New York and Toronto, the media capitals of the United States and Canada.

To many, that in itself represents good business: that a pregame scuffle between the Maple Leafs and Rangers last Saturday (that might or might not have included some below-the-belt insults) caught a lot of headlines and resulted in a bunch of fines and still could produce a lawsuit or two.

That, of course, comes from the school of thought that suggests it doesn't matter what you write or say about somebody seeking fame, as long as he gets his name spelt correctly.

Then, there's the other philosophy, the one that suggests that for every person who loved the Sean Avery vs. Darcy Tucker shoving match Saturday, there are others who were more determined that there was nothing about the sport or the NHL that interested them at all.

It is, after all, arguably the biggest debate in the game today: Does violence, and the threat of violence, attract fans and viewers? Or does it turn them off?

It's a question that matters most to the NHL for a couple of reasons.

First, of the major sports (and some chuckle at the fact that the NHL, with its microscopic U.S. television ratings, still sees itself as one of North America's four biggies), hockey is the one that is most interested in attracting new customers because, right now, it has the fewest.

Second, hockey is the sport that is most lenient on post-whistle activities and trash-talking, and in which teams employ athletes specifically for the purpose of engaging in fights, for which they serve a short, usually meaningless penalty before returning to action.

No other major sport permits fighting in quite the same way. No other sport, really, allows constant punching, shoving and threatening after the whistle in the same way.

In football, the punches fly and so do the flags. In the NBA, referees have cracked down on any form of taunting and anything close to a scrap merits ejection. Hockey, however, tacitly endorses this behavior by either mild punishment or no punishment at all.

Take the Avery-Tucker brouhaha. It all stemmed from a game last season in which the two players, both known as pests, jawed at Madison Square Garden and fought. On Saturday, they became embroiled in a shouting match at the red line during the pregame warmup, and when other players came near, they started shoving and threatening each other with their sticks.

Both, however, played in the game. They again fought in the first period and staged a very visible screaming match in the penalty box for which neither was assessed any added penalties. Avery later scored, and the Rangers won in a shootout.

Tucker labeled Avery "classless" after the game, and later came unsubstantiated allegations that Avery might have said something derogatory about Leafs winger Jason Blake's ongoing battle with a treatable form of leukemia, which he learned he had at the start of this season. Avery denied making any cancer-related insults and threatened legal action against a Toronto radio reporter who broadcast the allegation.

Leafs enforcer Wade Belak, meanwhile, used the incident to make a case for the removal of the "instigator" penalty from the NHL, a contentious rule that penalizes players for starting fights. Phoenix defenseman Nick Boynton, for example, was fined and handed a one-game suspension for instigating a fight in the final five minutes of a recent loss to San Jose, and Boynton's coach, Wayne Gretzky, also was fined.

Belak also said someone likely will "kill" Avery in the future for his penchant for insulting and aggravating opposing players.

"If he keeps this up, someone is going to kill him," Belak said. "One day, he's going to say something the wrong way, and he'll be clubbed."

For all of this, the NHL fined the two richest NHL teams, the Rangers and Leafs, $25,000 and $10,000, respectively. Avery, who makes $1.9 million per season, was fined $2,500, the maximum allowable under the current collective-bargaining agreement, while Tucker, who makes $3 million a year, was fined $1,000. League officials said both were guilty of "unprofessional conduct."

And now, they can look forward to their next meeting, Dec. 6 in New York, a game which, you can bet, will be built up as the latest in a series of grudge matches. Avery and the Rangers, meanwhile, take on the Devils on Wednesday night in Newark, the first game between the two teams since Avery jawed with both All-Star goalie Martin Brodeur and winger David Clarkson in the pregame warmup before their Nov. 3 game. After that game, Avery called Brodeur "Marty the Diver" and said Clarkson was a "bonehead minor-leaguer."

There are those, of course, who love this stuff, and point to the headlines and highlights and suggest it whips up excitement and interest for the game. It certainly appeals to the pro wrestling/Jerry Springer crowd, the bloodthirsty, always-ready-for-revenge, reality-TV types who love it when an angry woman digs her claws into the face of her husband's mistress while a studio audience cheers.

But does it really help the NHL grow? Does it help the league expand its reach beyond hard-core fans in Canada -- a market of 33 million people, fewer than California -- and the regional pockets across the United States that traditionally have supported the league and the sport?

There also are those who point out that it was this kind of ugly trash-talking that led to one of the ugliest incidents in hockey history, the attack by Vancouver forward Todd Bertuzzi on Steve Moore of Colorado in March 2004, in which Moore suffered a broken neck and Bertuzzi was given a lengthy suspension and charged criminally.

In that case, Moore was accused of an illegal hit on Vancouver's Markus Naslund in a previous game, and some Canucks players talked about putting a "bounty" on Moore's head for subsequent games between the two teams. Moore has never played again after being assaulted from behind by Bertuzzi and still is pursuing legal action against Bertuzzi, now of Anaheim.

Sam Mitchell, the coach of the Toronto Raptors, wondered why hockey players seem to be given greater latitude for misbehavior on the ice.

"You know what's crazy about it? If a basketball player said it or I said it, it would be front page, I would be called upstairs, I would be in trouble, I'd get fined," Mitchell told The Toronto Sun. "If a hockey player says it, it's nothing. If a basketball player goes in the stands, the sport is out of control. How long have hockey players been going into the stands?"

Interestingly, there are those, including well-known "Hockey Night in Canada" commentator Don Cherry, who believe the sport urgently needs more fighting, not less, to allow players to "police" themselves and give fans who enjoy the fights more of what they want.

At the same time, however, Cherry lambasted Avery for his antics Saturday night and said that's what makes people "hate" the sport.

"It makes hockey look bad," he roared.

A little confusing? You bet.

Fight advocates argue that being on the edge, promoting an outlaw element and pushing the envelope give the NHL a distinctive profile in a North American sports landscape crowded with alternatives.

Others, however, wonder just how many fans and TV eyeballs this approach has cost the league over the 40 years it has been desperately trying to gain a lasting foothold in the lucrative U.S. market.

There's no right or wrong answer. Just opinions, lots of loud ones, for a sport that still wonders what it wants to be.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."