Bloody Faces Aren’t What Hockey Needs to Appeal: Scott Soshnick

Maybe now the lords of hockey will listen.

Maybe now that an icon has voiced his support for speed and skill over payback punches, maybe Mario Lemieux’s fellow National Hockey League owners will come around to the sensible and responsible notion that it’s time to abolish fighting.

It’s due. Long overdue, actually, especially to those of us who remember a fellow named Steve Moore, who doesn’t play hockey anymore. He can’t play hockey anymore.

Lemieux saved hockey in Pittsburgh. And now, whether he knows it or not, whether he intended to or not, Lemieux has embarked on the more difficult challenge of saving hockey from the staid notion that patrons prefer roundhouse rights in their skill set.

“We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players,” was Lemieux’s reaction after the NHL doled out its discipline from a brawl-marred game last week between his Penguins and the New York Islanders. “If the events reflect the state of the league, I need to rethink whether I want to be part of it.”

You have to hope that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and his 30 bosses, the franchise owners, ruminate on that statement for a minute. Better yet, make that five minutes, equivalent to the amount of time players serve in the penalty box for dropping their gloves and beating the bejesus out of one another. Five minutes. That’s all.

‘We Like It’

What we have here is a revered former player, a legend who has devoted his entire life to the game he loves, having second thoughts about whether what he fought to save and then nurture is still worthy of his time, effort and affection.

Lemieux is talking about the game. Owners, though they won’t admit it, equate fisticuffs with finances. Just ask NBC analyst Mike Milbury, a former NHL player, coach and general manager.

“Fighting is there because we like it. We like the violent part of it, whether we admit it or not,” Milbury said on the air. “Fighting is not essential to winning.”

Unlike the National Football League and National Basketball Association, which are both facing labor squabbles and possibly lockouts, the NHL has the luxury of pondering more important questions -- like how to improve the actual product.

Almost seven years ago, when Moore’s career was ended by a Todd Bertuzzi sucker-punch, hockey missed an opportunity to end fighting.

Well, here’s another chance.

Unnecessary Roughness

If only they’ll listen to Lemieux, who was rightfully mortified after his team’s game against the Islanders produced 65 penalties totaling 346 minutes. Ten players were ejected from what was more boxing match than hockey game. At one point there were more coaches and trainers on the Penguins bench than players.

Embarrassing to the sport, were Lemieux’s words. More importantly, all the thuggery is unneeded.

There isn’t a hockey fan out there that would quit the sport if fighting was eliminated. At its best, hockey is a game of speed, power, precision and, yes, physicality. There’s nothing better than an open-ice check, shoulder-to-chest, stick down.

The league’s brain trust spends its time measuring goaltender pads, planning outdoor games and casting reality TV shows, but can’t seem to make headway on the game’s biggest eyesore.

Olympic Heights

Anyone who’d rather see two goons pounding on each other more than Sidney Crosby with a full head of steam isn’t a hockey fan.

There weren’t any fights at the Olympics. The game was never better, fans rising to their feet, oohs and ahs aplenty.

Hockey seems to suffer from the same ailment as the NFL, where the players have to be protected from themselves. How else can you explain the plethora of cheap shots and dangerous hits?

I asked Ted Leonsis of the Washington Capitals if in the wake of Lemieux’s comments there was growing support among owners to abolish fighting.

“No comment from me,” Leonsis, a former AOL vice chairman, wrote in an e-mail.

Maybe that’s for the best.

Owners do a lot of talking. It’s time they listen. Listen to Milbury when he says fighting isn’t integral to winning. Listen to Lemieux, who says he and hockey might not fit anymore. Listen to Bertuzzi, who wished that day never happened. And, most importantly, listen to Moore, who warned that it’s going to happen again.

(Scott Soshnick is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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