Minor-league restrictions could lead to the end of fighting in NHL

Colorado's Cody McLeod led the NHL in fights each of the past two seasons. He was assessed 12 fighting majors last year and 19 in 2014-15. Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports

It has been one of the longest-running debates in hockey, and this year's crackdown at the junior and American Hockey League levels will once again bring it to the forefront.

Is there still a place for fighting in the NHL? And if so, for how long?

"Let's face it, the game has gone away from it," said Philadelphia Flyers president Paul Holmgren, who was in 89 fights and piled up 1,684 penalty minutes in 527 NHL games from 1976-85.

"It's more of a four-line game. If a fourth-line guy is not killing penalties, your team is probably not very good. To have a guy sit on your bench who's just going to fight, that time's gone by."

Last month, the Ontario Hockey League instituted a three-fight rule, dictating that players who drop the gloves more than three times during the 2016-17 season will be suspended two games for each subsequent fight.

Under a 10-fight rule last season, 56 OHL players had more than three fights but none exceeded 10.

This season, the AHL is adopting a 10-fight rule, suspending players one game for every fight exceeding 10. Players who engage in more than 13 fights will be suspended two games for each subsequent fight.

The AHL will also issue a game misconduct for any player who engages in a "staged" fight immediately before or after a faceoff.

Milwaukee Admirals left winger Michael Liambas, who led the AHL with 20 fighting majors last season with the Rockford IceHogs, said players will find ways to circumvent staged fighting but will need to curb their enthusiasm for dropping the gloves over the course of a full season.

"I don't think there's a place for [staged fighting], but I think fighting has always been in hockey and always will and always should be," Liambas said. "If you want a real gauge on it, you should probably ask the nonfighting guys how they feel about it. I think guys feel more comfortable with me being in the lineup rather than not having someone around to take care of guys getting out of hand."

Two members of the Flyers are on board.

"I think it's good to have an enforcer on the team," said captain Claude Giroux. "It keeps guys honest. I think every team has one, as they should. There has been a lot of talk about enforcers being eliminated, but I'm a strong believer in those kind of players."

Added defenseman Michael Del Zotto: "Before the game, you'll look at the other team's lineup and whenever you see a tough guy or enforcer, it definitely makes you think twice about trying to take liberties or running another guy on the other team in a vulnerable position. Anytime you see [an enforcer] like this, it crosses your mind and I think it helps with the safety of the game."

According to hockeyfights.com, there were 696 fights in the 30-team AHL last season, and 16 players received 11 or more fighting majors. By comparison, the 30-team NHL had 343 fights, with just three players in excess of 10 -- Cody McLeod of the Colorado Avalanche with 12, and Derek Dorsett of the Vancouver Canucks and Matt Martin of the New York Islanders each with 11.

Holmgren said he's curious to see how AHL fans react to what he anticipates will be a dramatic drop in fights.

"Some of those towns like that style of game," Holmgren said. "But if you look at the junior leagues, there's very little fighting anymore. Once those players get to the NHL, they probably will not have had many fights coming up, so why should they start [fighting] in the NHL?"

But what about players such as Liambas, who has averaged 20 fights a season in his past three years in the AHL?

"It's not like I'm going to say, 'I had a fight four games ago, I better cool it for another 10 games,'" Liambas said. "Because you don't know what's going to happen within a game. If it has to be done, it has to be done.

"If I'm at nine fights and something happens on the ice that's pretty dirty, it's still something that has to be done. At the end of the day, sticking up for my brothers in that locker room is a big deal to me and something I take pride in, making sure my teammates are safe out there."

Lehigh Valley Phantoms forward Tyrell Goulbourne agrees, adding that the crackdown on staged fighting won't actually cut down on the number of overall fights.

"Guys know ways around it," said Goulbourne, who led his team with seven fights last season. "You just have to be in the play before you [fight]. You engage the puck, bump your guy and go at it."

The bigger issue among hockey enforcers is the impact fewer fights will have on the overall safety of players.

"I feel like there are more cheap shots now than there's ever been," said Lehigh Valley assistant coach and former enforcer Riley Cote, who had five pro seasons at various levels with more than 20 fights, including 24 in 2007-08 and 22 in 2008-09 with the Flyers.

Cote said one reason for the recent increase in head injuries is that today's players are bigger, faster and cover more ice than ever before. But he believes there is another reason.

"There's virtually no accountability anymore," he said. "I think there are more concussions and more injuries because there's nobody there to keep the peace. Fans who don't understand hockey don't understand that. If you could do the math on it, fighting probably helps limit head blows.

"I get it. The days of the Broad Street Bullies are out the door. But even in the [six years] since I retired and got into coaching, I've seen the respect of the game and the accountability go down and down and down. Guys can skate around like King Kong. They don't answer the bell, they just turtle and go on the power play and make you look like a fool. I don't like where they're going with it."

Liambas, who said he has been concussed once in more than 100 career fights, said he thinks the NHL is using the AHL's 10-fight rule as a test, with the intent to adopt similar measures and possibly take fighting out of the NHL game altogether.

"If they do that, I think guys would have a lot bigger stones on the ice, because they know they can get away with anything and they wouldn't have to answer the bell for their actions, other than getting a penalty or getting a suspension or fined by the league," Liambas said.

Still, the debate rages on, with Holmgren saying he would not be surprised to see a fightless NHL in the not-too-distant future.

"I might be biased," Holmgren said, "but I watch an NHL playoff game now, and I just go, 'Wow.' The speed, the hitting -- it's unbelievable. We'll survive with or without fighting. Hockey's a great game, and if that's the way it's going -- I think it's still some years down the road -- but if in fact that's the way it's going, sure, I'm OK with that."