Fighting debate, opinions evolving

I grew up loving hockey fights. Some of my favorite players were tough guys.

When I broke into the business with The Canadian Press national news agency as a hockey writer in 1995, I used to write weekly columns ranking the top tough guys, not just in the NHL, but also in the AHL and ECHL. People who know me know this.

And so the question I've often gotten over the past few years is when, exactly, I had such a dramatic change of heart about fighting.

It didn't happen overnight. I meandered my way there over the course of time. But if there's one moment that acted as the catalyst, it's this one, from a game on March 21, 2007, when Todd Fedoruk literally had his faced punched in by Colton Orr.

I remember feeling incredible angst that Fedoruk might die right there on the ice. I remember thinking that these tough guys are punching harder than ever, are bigger than ever, and wondering if fighting is safe anymore.

"Guys got bigger and guys got stronger," said Fedoruk, reached on the phone Wednesday. "But it's still an element you can't eradicate. It's part of the game."

Fedoruk is clearly conflicted. He is concerned about brain injuries and how much bigger and stronger tough guys have become, but he also still believes in the role. He just wants it to be safer.

"As safe as possible, yes, without taking away the policing element for the players," said Fedoruk, who believes that most serious injuries are caused by dangerous hits, not fights.

Back in March 2007, I got NHL executive Colin Campbell in hot water when I quoted him in light of the Orr-Fedoruk fight. Campbell said something I know he wishes he hadn't said on the record at the time. But good for him, I say.

"I think you have to ask the question [about the value of fighting] because of what's happening out there," Campbell told me then. "It's incumbent on me, because of my position, to ask the question. I think if you discussed this even three or four years ago, you would have got pooh-poohed out of the game.

"But now I think because of the size of our players, where we're at in sports and in life, I think we have to look at it."

In Campbell's defense, he wasn't saying he wanted to ban fighting. He was simply inviting the discussion in terms of safety, as a respected hockey man in his position should have. But the reaction was swift. The hockey world wasn't ready yet for that discussion almost seven years ago. Now, of course, that has changed.

Hockey people talk more openly about their feelings on fighting. From Steve Yzerman to Ray Shero to Scotty Bowman to David Poile, respected hockey men have spoken out about fighting in the last year. But as Poile himself told me in October in the wake of the George Parros incident, nothing will ever change until the players want to get more involved in this debate.

While the NHLPA declined any kind of official comment for ESPN.com's fighting package this week, the players' union did say that executive director Donald Fehr is having the fighting discussion with union members during his fall tour with players on all 30 teams.

At this point, I don't think you're going to see anything change from the players' point of view: 98 percent said they wanted to keep fighting in the game, per a 2012 NHLPA/"Hockey Night In Canada" poll.

And just so we're clear, I'm not yet at the point where I believe an all-out ban is the best answer. What I'm hoping is that the NHL gets rid of, or at least minimizes, the kind of fights that don't have any impact on the game, starting with staged fights.

The NHL has chipped away at that phenomenon, this year implementing a two-minute penalty for players who remove their helmets during a fight. In 2005, the league instituted an automatic suspension for an instigator penalty in the last five minutes of a game.

And when NHL GMs meet again in March for their big annual gathering, more rules meant to minimize fighting, or at least make it safer, will once again be examined. The league has no choice but to forge ahead in this direction, and the plight of former enforcer Gino Odjick certainly drives home the point.

As for Fedoruk? Despite the numerous injuries he suffered while playing the role of enforcer, he feels "great" today.

"I feel fine; I don't have lingering effects," he said. "It doesn't affect everybody. It depends on the guy."

Not that he didn't want to make sure, though.

"I went through a gamut of testing because my mom was worried about it," said Fedoruk. "I had upwards of 20 concussions from what they're considering concussions now."

Wait, 20 concussions?

"Oh, yeah, for what they're considering now. I was only documented for three when I played, but I only documented the ones where I had to stay the night in hospital."

The NHL's concussion protocol has thankfully come a long way. After Tuesday's morning skate, I posed the fighting question to veteran Sharks blueliner Brad Stuart. He didn't opt for the generic answer. He gave an insightful one.

"Maybe we've come to a point where people want to discuss it and figure out how it's going to go moving forward," said Stuart. "But I don't think it's a thing you can just take out of the game tomorrow. Will it be around in five to 10 years? Maybe not. But I think there's a use for it. It can be something that would be hard to take out of the game. Just the nature of the game, the emotion, things happen -- so to completely eliminate it would be tough.

"But again, it could be one of those things that happens slowly over time. Before you know it, maybe one day it'll seem like an archaic thing to do."

Stuart doesn't want fighting out of the game, but he recognizes the climate of the day and wonders openly if years from now we'll look at fighting as "archaic."

In other words, people involved in the game are thinking about this more and more. There won't be any overnight changes. This will be a gradual process.

But that's where the debate is headed, like it or not.