Modern hockey is slowly dropping traditional brawl
By Blake Sebring email@example.com
When Kevin Kaminski played for the Fort Wayne Komets in 1990-91, opponents never knew if he was coming from the front, the side or behind. They only knew he was coming every shift of every game, fists up and head down.
Kaminski became an all-time Fort Wayne fan favorite because of his brawling, leave-nothing-behind style. It didn’t matter if opponents were 25 pounds bigger or if they had a reputation as being NHL tough, he’d take a swing at anybody and was an inspiration to teammates because he picked himself up after every beating. The bigger they were, the harder he’d fall on them.
In today’s game, a player like Kaminski might not even get on the ice, even if a man like Kaminski is the team’s coach.
“Fighting is slowly dying,” said Kaminski, now the coach of the Missouri River Otters. “You can be physical and be a fighter, but you better be able to skate and keep up. You have to be accountable at both ends of the ice. I hate to see it go out.”
When the Komets traded tough guy Jeff Worlton last week, Komets General Manager David Franke said fighting is less important in hockey today. United Hockey League Director of Hockey Operations Brad Jones then reported that there were approximately 100 fewer fights this season than at this point in last year’s schedule. In the NHL, fighting is down 46 percent from two years ago.
Franke, the man who brought “The Ice Patrol” and tough players such as Kevin MacDonald, Andy Bezeau, Steve Fletcher, Andre Roy, Phil Crowe and Bruce Ramsay to Fort Wayne, isn’t happy to see fighting diminish, but feels he has to adapt to the game in front of him.
“The game has changed and the need for a heavyweight enforcer isn’t as great as it was two, three or four years ago,” Franke said. “With the rules changes, you have to be able to skate and contribute. If there’s a big guy out there who can’t skate, you just leave him alone with the fighting, and maybe you can burn him for a goal or two sometimes.”
For years the UHL had the reputation as a brawling circuit, something the league fought against for more than a decade. Now players at all levels are getting smaller, mostly because the game is getting faster with rules changes.
This year hockey eliminated the center-ice red line, turning games into speed-skating contests. There’s still room for physical play – if you can catch them. With stricter enforcement of hooking, interference and holding rules, larger players aren’t as effective unless they can skate with smaller players. Major penalties and cheap shots are down so there is less need for players to police themselves.
“There are a lot of guys who used to play every game as fighters who barely play any more,” Komets defenseman Ryan Jorde said. “I’ll fight every game under the right circumstances. If someone runs somebody or does something stupid I’ll be the first one in there, but there has to be somebody to fight, too. I love to fight, but on every team there are fewer fighters now.”
Roster rules have also changed. Each UHL team is required to play four rookies in each game and can have only 19 players on each roster, instead of 20 or 21. If an opponent doesn’t have a fighter in the lineup, it’s unlikely an opponent will put their enforcer on the ice. It’s more important for that extra player to be a versatile skater who might be able to play forward or defense rather than fight.
And players who can play, have size, can skate and possess a high skill level are almost immediately snatched up by higher leagues.
There were also times earlier this season when the Komets were playing games with four or five defenseman, Jorde said. It would have been selfish of him to get into a fight and take himself off the ice, leaving his already tired teammates to pick up the slack.
This year every UHL player is required to wear a half-shield visor.
The move was made because of increasing insurance costs to cut down on eye injuries, but it also served to cut down on fights. Players are asked to take their helmets off before fighting, but it’s not mandatory, and taking the time to discard a helmet might mean taking a shot in the face.
“I’m definitely thinking twice before possibly wrecking my hands up,” said Komets captain Colin Chaulk, who fought five times last year but none this year. “I don’t want to maybe wreck my hands and not be able to hold my stick or do things offensively. It also feels like there are a lot tighter games than last year, and you have to put the team ahead of your own personal matters.”
Maybe the biggest factor isn’t the changes in rules but the changes in players. College and European hockey, which are producing more players every year, prohibit fighting. Junior hockey also requires shields. “I think the players nowadays have never been indoctrinated into the fighting style,” Komets coach Greg Puhalski said. “I’m sure most of these players have never been involved in a brawl.
“They don’t know what it’s like because some of these players have never been in a fighting situation until they came to pro. That’s just who they are.”
But it’s also doubtful fighting will ever be completely eliminated from the sport. Owners know there is a segment of their fan base that would quit buying tickets. UHL owners are stressing to linesmen that they shouldn’t be as quick to jump in and break up fights before they get started.
“If you look at the game now, it’s a good product, a really good product,” Komets forward Jonathan Goodwin said. “If you look at the NHL, fighting is way down because the game is too fast. It’s a skating game now.”