Great stuff on HNIC’s Hot Stove segment during the second intermission last night.  I’m trying to think of a media commentator I’ve come more around on than Mike Milbury.  The Hot Stove segments of a previous era (albeit only 3 years ago or so) with Milbury AND Al Strachan and whomever else they tossed in there to nod and give an injury update once in a while, I felt, were close to unwatchable.

Since the departure of Strachan from CBC/HNIC under very less-than-amicable circumstances, I think Milbury’s development to express points and move conversations along has grown in leaps and bounds.  On last night’s broadcast, Milbury weighed in on a few issues, including fighting and headshots.  He denoted the obvious lack of consistency and credibility the league’s office, and specifically Colin Campbell have on these issues anymore.  As I and countless others have said for at least a couple of seasons now, NO ONE takes these decisions seriously.  No one thinks they have any consistency and no one thinks the lenient nature of the suspensions does anything whatsoever to deter more and more ugly incidents, and correlated to that, more and more of many team’s stars can’t play 65-70 percent of their team’s games, and even more every year, like Marc Savard, end up having their careers placed in jeopardy.

This is somewhat new for Milbury in that he finally seems to have grasped that the league would be a more popular place in the United States of America if more of its star players could stay healthy, and those who wreak havoc and mayhem were properly punished as they would be in any other professional league on the planet.  The NHL stands alone in this department of enabling, and that’s now far less of an “opinion” as it was, perhaps 12 months ago, than it is now, a “very difficult to argue” perception.

Milbury was quoted as saying “we have fighting in the NHL for only one reason: we like it”.  He stood alone and stood strong despite the protestations of Ron MacLean (well-established as a league sympathizer and a co-prosecutor in the now-infamous video debriefing with Colin Campbell, of all of Alex Burrows’ evil and diabolical transgressions on-ice after he suggested it might be possible one of the league’s referees just “might” have it out for him, in Stephane Auger), and Eric Francis.  Milbury did denote there are fights that happen for a reason and those that don’t.  He suggests the league needs to look further into getting rid of the latter category.

Take the Maple Leafs for example, with their enforcer Colton Orr as an example.  The Leafs are 19-22-5 this season when Orr skates, and though we are all well-aware he doesn’t “skate” terribly often, he does dress.  That in itself means he’s taking the spot of another player.  That the Leafs are 10-6-4 without him, I’m not suggesting is because of his absence, as much as it is the development and continued usage of James Reimer as a starting goaltender, but they miss absolutely nothing in terms of flow, effectiveness, and pace without him – that’s difficult to argue.  Other than the standard and “old bit” aspects of fighting Ottawa’s Matt Carkner in seemingly every Senators/Maple Leafs meeting, I’m not sure how to class Orr’s fights.  Are they entertaining?  Are they meaningful?  Are they ever (or often) to protect a teammate from being run through both ends of the rink?

I’d have to think Leafs fans took more joy and sense of accomplishment in Keith Aulie’s first NHL fight the other night when he took Flyers’ forward Scott Hartnell’s best and then proceeded to pop him hard, knocking Hartnell sprawling.

I’ve heard the arguments over and over again — no one goes to the concession stands during a fight, people yell and scream and get excited.  Sure they do, but I’m like anyone else — I enjoy a good fight, but it has to mean something and it has to serve a purpose.  When we were in elementary school or even high school, you knew once in a while you’d have to stand up for yourself physically (or in rarer cases, someone else) and you did so — win some, lose some, BUT, you didn’t just scrap for the sake of scrapping.  The kids who did so didn’t make it too far down the line in the system, if I recall correctly.

I’m hoping Orr gets healthy and well and can play soon again, but I highly doubt many Leafs fans are “feeling” his absence when they attend games or watch on television.  When Luke Schenn, Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, or to a lesser extent, Mike Brown, drop the gloves, it seems to mean more.  It’s more of a water-cooler discussion the next morning.  We’ve had playoff fights in the last several years featuring Jarome Iginla v. Vincent LeCavalier (and Derian Hatcher in the same playoff run of 2004), and Joe Thornton v. Ryan Getzlaf.  Fights like those are meant to serve a purpose, not to simply keep getting a paycheque.

I can tell you I’m convinced for a large segment of the US population, they’d enjoy hockey more without fighting.  They don’t want broken noses, blood on the ice (or sweater), and they don’t want to be pressed against the glass and hear the crunching sound of a shattered cheekbone.  Please don’t mistake the UFC’s moderate popularity for some massive groundswell of popular sentiment for more violent and thuggish behaviour in mainstream sports.  It’s, at best, fiction, and at worst, dangerously disingenuous.  There might be (and I think this number is being quite liberal) 0.25 percent of the US population who would ever spend more than 5 minutes engaging themselves in viewing (or obviously attending a UFC fight).  That raw number based on the percentage, happens to be about 8 million people.  Again, I think that’s high.  The other 99.75 percent have either no interest in it, are bored by it, are disgusted by it, or are culturally put off by it.

And make no mistake, there’ll still be fights in hockey.  It IS part of the fabric, but we just need to see the NHL start penalizing them with 5 minutes AND a game misconduct, and late in games, referees need to start using discretion and determining whether the fight was “staged” or “served a purpose” and then a one-game suspension should be meted out.  We’d still have fights, just not as many, and those that occured would mean something.

But as I’ve documented, asking the NHL to be pro-active and get in FRONT of an important issue like this that improves the game and benefits the safety and reputation of the league and its players, is often a losing battle.

Either way, good on Mike Milbury — he said what many were thinking and it obviously caught his colleagues on the Stove by surprise.  Heaven forbid some unpredictability enter the mix.

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