September 7, 2011

Fischler Report: Deaths of enforcers a troubling problem

By Stan Fischler

Derek Boogaard, right, fights the Islanders' Trevor Gillies last season. (photo: Getty) Suddenly there's widespread concern about fighting in the National Hockey League and its effects on "hockey cops" such as the recently deceased Wade Belak.

And for good reason.

The passing of Derek Boogaard (right), Rick Rypien and Belak in such a relative short period of time raises valid questions about the role of such enforcers and the effects of endless fights on themselves as well as The Game.

It's important to note that fighting has been part of hockey's very fabric since the days of Lord Stanley. Players inevitably became angered when fouled without a penalty called. Frontier justice demanded retaliation and, thus, the fights.

For the first half-century of the NHL's existence, fighting was a generally honorable aspect of the game. Gordie Howe fought his own battles, as did Rocket Richard and Dickie Moore, all Hall of Famers.

But the honor began disappearing with the advent of six-team expansion in 1967. Expansion clubs were forced to sign mediocre players whose forte was fighting. Once the Flyers -- alias Broad Street Bullies -- won two straight Stanley Cups (1974, 1975), other clubs signed enforcers and a "new" kind of fisticuffs developed that has infected the game ever since.

For want of better words, "staged fights" emerged. One enforcer would simply say the magic words -- "Do ya wanna go?" -- and, poof, just like that, the gloves were dropped and the likes of Dave Semenko and Dave Schultz swung away.

Some of the ice cops, such as Tie Domi and the late Bob Probert, also were productive players, but who remembers them for that?

All things considered, the NHL could thrive very well without staged fights which have done more to deface The Game then enhance its popularity.

The trick will be finding a way -- Donald Fehr, are you listening? -- to eliminate goons for the sake of goonsmanship. Three deaths in less than half a year should inspire some deep thinking for a problem that's easily solved -- but only if the Lords of Hockey have the will to make changes.

Gossip

* Who do you think will be the next unrestricted free agent signed before training camp? The best of the rest includes John Madden, Bryan McCabe, Corey Stillman, former Bruins winger Sergei Samsonov, Chris Campoli and J.P. Dumont.

* One of coach John Tortorella's (Melrose, Mass.) most challenging questions will be his selection of left wing on the Rangers’ first line, which now includes Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik. Chances are that no less than four possible candidates – Sean Avery, Wojtek Wolski, Ruslan Fedotenko andBrandon Dubinsky -- will be tried. It hardly will surprise us that, by November, Avery will be the regular portsider for Richie and Gabby.

Torts and his boss, Glen Sather, also will be mulling over potential captains, with Ryan Callahanleading all very-unofficial fan polls for the ‘C.’

* Flyers GM Paul Holmgren was injured in a bike accident on Monday in Avalon, N.J. Holmgren suffered a broken shoulder, broken ribs and other injuries in the accident.

Flyers senior director of communications Zack Hill released a quick statement Tuesday morning. “(Holmgren) is sore but otherwise in good spirits.”

We wish Paul the best and a speedy recovery.

* With Travis Zajac indefinitely sidelined while his Achilles heel heals, Dainius Zubrus may become the Devils’ center-in-waiting until the very vital Zajac returns to the New Jersey lineup.

Finding the best possible replacement for Zajac automatically becomes the top priority for new coachPeter DeBoer who, like his rival across the Hudson – Tortorella – must choose a captain among such worthies as Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias, the latter of whom also could wind up pinch-centering for Zajac.

Stan Fischler can be reached at FischerReport@gmail.com.