NHL Would Be Misguided to Implement More Anti-Fighting Rules in Wake of Rangers-Devils Line Brawl

NHL Would Be Misguided to Implement More Anti-Fighting Rules in Wake of Rangers-Devils Line BrawlAs hard as it might be for Bruins fans to believe, Boston's 8-0 battering of the Leafs wasn't the most entertaining spectacle to take place in an NHL rink on Monday night.

That honor fell to the raucous start to the game at Madison Square Garden between the Rangers and Devils, who engaged in a wild line brawl three seconds after the opening faceoff.

It might be even harder for hockey fans from all markets to believe that the league is actually considering new rules to make sure such excitement never takes place again.

The Devils and Rangers capped a series of intense, physical clashes between the Atlantic Division rivals this season with a tone-setting donnybrook to open their matchup on Monday. As the visiting team, the Devils had to submit their starting lineup first, and New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer opted to open with fourth-line bangers Eric Boulton, Cam Janssen and Ryan Carter. Rangers coach John Tortorella countered with his tough guys, starting Mike Rupp and Brandon Prust on the wings and even moving defenseman Stu Bickel up to center to take the opening draw.

Just three seconds after the faceoff, three fights broke out simultaneously as Boulton battled Rupp, Janssen tangled with Prust, and Carter traded punches with Bickel, all to the delight of the MSG crowd.

The bouts fired up the rest of the players on both sides as well, with the Rangers ultimately prevailing 4-2 in a possible playoff preview. The fights also drew approval from players around the league.

The Canadian Press collected a sampling of reactions to the brawling, which included Montreal forward Brad Staubitz noting, "It is an exciting part of hockey," and Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic adding, "As a fan of hockey, I thought it was pretty cool."

Isles teammate John Tavares, a skilled center not exactly known for pugilism (one fight in 233 career games in NHL), even gave the increasingly rare display of mayhem a thumbs up.

"I can understand [it] from both those teams, playing against them a lot and being in the New York area and what those rivalries are like," Tavares told the Canadian Press. "You don't see that so much anymore, a few fights right off the draw like that. It really brings the intensity and the passion into the game."

It's not surprising that players would so universally support Monday's scraps. A recently released Sports Illustrated players poll found 99.5 percent of players opposed a ban of fighting in the game, with just one player in favor of eliminating fighting.

Fan polls consistently reveal similar support. But the voices of the guys who actually play the game and the paying customers that actually make the business a success often appear to mean little to the league's decision-makers.

This incident produced the usual hysteria from the anti-fighting zealots, and now the league is reportedly considering implementing new rules to prevent further outbreaks of such entertainment. The model for the new restrictions would be the rule put in place in 2005 that adds automatic suspensions to players and fines to coaches for instigating fights in the final five minutes of regulation.

That was a poorly conceived idea on its own that puts a separate set of rules in place depending on how much time is left on the clock. It also eliminated one of the things that made hockey unique, in that the potential for the occasional scrap out of frustration or to send a message for the next meeting meant that, unlike other sports, fans rarely left early or switched the channel late in a blowout. But hey, why would a league want people to actually watch their product in its entirety?

Games like Monday also show why hockey is one sport you never want to show up late for. But the NHL is considering taking care of that, too. Fans might not have to worry about battling traffic or finding parking anymore, with league executive vice president Colin Campbell telling ESPN.com that the same kind of punishments used to curtail fighting at the end of games could also be applied to the start of the contests.

And yes, that is the father of Bruins center Gregory Campbell, whose bout with Steve Ott sparked a series of three fights in the opening four seconds of last year's clash with Dallas. Garden fans made their desire never to see such a spectacle again known with a loud and lengthy standing ovation for the combatants.

"What we did with the competition committee coming out of the lockout, we crafted a new rule at the end of the game," Campbell told ESPN.com. "We put the onus on the coach and the player.

"If the GMs find this [line brawl Tuesday night] unacceptable, maybe we'd craft it the same way at the start of the game, put the onus on both the player and the coach? Or you'd have to find a current interpretation of the rulebook," Campbell said.

That would be a ridiculous overreaction to an event that players and fans have no issue with, other than some fair complaints that such activities don't happen often enough anymore.

Fighting has already declined dramatically in recent years, with this season seeing a particularly sharp drop. Stat keepers at hockeyfights.com have fights down to just 0.45 a game, with just 35.4 percent of games featuring a fight. That's down from 0.52 fights a game and 37.2 percent of games with fights last season, and 0.64 fights a game and 41.1 percent of games having a fight in the final year before the lockout in 2003-04.

Despite the decline, fighting remains an integral part of the NHL game, providing an outlet for frustrations less dangerous than the stick-swinging alternatives, a way to hold players accountable for questionable actions on the ice and an effective means of changing momentum.

And yes, it is also an important component of the overall entertainment package for many fans.

These incidents are rare enough. The last thing the NHL needs is even more rules put in place to limit them further.

Click here to see Monday's Rangers-Devils line brawl >>

Have a question for Douglas Flynn? Send it to him via Twitter at @douglasflynn or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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