Inside the NHL

NEWARK, N.J. — Safe to say, the Kraken was rather pleased to get out of Philadelphia, where not even its alleged “new” mascot was safe.

You kind of knew where Monday night was headed once bright-orange-and-somewhat-deranged-looking Flyers mascot Gritty, on Wells Fargo Arena’s giant scoreboard during a first-period television timeout, introduced a fake, string-beaned-and-squid-like Kraken counterpart named “Cuddles” and then did just what you’d expect. The ensuing Gritty pie-in-the-face half-gag/half-assault on poor Cuddles was an apt metaphor for what the home team inflicted on the Kraken the rest of the game in a forgettable 6-1 shellacking in which new NHL fans got a taste of on-ice fighting in all its extremes. 

We might as well get this out of the way early in this debut Kraken season: Though some well-intentioned folks want NHL fighting banned, it remains very much a part of the league’s daily existence.

Heck, the New York Rangers appeared to offload their general manager and coach, then adapted their offseason strategy largely as a result of Washington Capitals bad boy Tom Wilson laying a whupping on star players Pavel Buchenevich and Artemi Panarin last spring with no real retribution. The Rangers felt their skilled team had been pushed around too much and wasn’t going to take it lying down, or being pinned down, either.

Unlike other major professional sports, where fisticuffs mean ejections, fighting is not only condoned in the NHL but actually marketed by some teams. A pregame scoreboard “highlights” package of recent Flyers feats Monday consisted of about one-half fighting, a quarter bone-crushing body checks and a remaining handful of goals. 

Players engaging in a one-on-one fight usually receive offsetting five-minute major penalties. Some get an extra two minutes for instigating a fight, but they aren’t exactly being dissuaded from dropping their gloves.

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So, no, we aren’t going to “cancel” any mention of fighting in game stories, or pretend it doesn’t exist, as some fans have requested. Fighting in pro hockey predates even the days when “Bad” Joe Hall — the defenseman who later died of Spanish Influenza in Seattle right after the canceled 1919 Stanley Cup Final — used to police the ice terrorizing opponents. 

Hockey by its nature is the most ancient gladiator of team sports — its participants surrounded by boards instead of Roman Coliseum walls — with no sidelines to run away and hide to. Collisions are high-speed, dangerous and violent and begot tempers of equal magnitude.

And though hockey fighting has certainly changed in scope, it remains a part of the modern pro game as evidenced Monday. Kraken fans saw a raucous tilt between Jamie Oleksiak and Flyers forward Nick Seeler in which both threw a plethora of heavy punches, with the Kraken defender landing the majority.

And they saw a forgettable third-period bout for Kraken forward Nathan Bastian, who got thoroughly pounded by former Seattle Thunderbirds product Nate Thompson. Bastian will live to fight another day — undoubtedly since he’s been in the mix of many pushing-and-shoving scrums since the preseason — but the beating he took is the kind that can quickly turn new fans off the sport.

The fists were flying again early Tuesday, when Kraken forward Brandon Tanev and Michael McCleod of the Devils squared off in an even bout just 2:27 into the game.

Still, NHL fighting is far tamer than it used to be in the 1970s and 1980s. 

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Philadelphia is where fighting as a tactical NHL weapon was truly berthed, the “Broad Street Bullies” Flyers teams winning Stanley Cup titles in 1974 and 1975. But contrary to popular belief, the Flyers, under the tutelage of former Seattle-based minor hockey pros Keith Allen and Fred Shero — Allen as Philadelphia’s GM and Shero as its coach — didn’t adopt fighting as a proactive measure. 

No, that decision was actually a reaction to being tormented and bullied by the rival St. Louis Blues, who used the Plager brothers — Barclay, Bob and Bill — and ex-Seattle Totems defenseman Noel Picard to overwhelm Philadelphia on the ice and in the proverbial alleyway. Tired of getting pushed around, Allen and Shero began a literal arms race in which they stockpiled big-biceps guys that beat people up.

Dave Schultz, Bob Kelly and other one-dimensional “enforcers” were there mainly to fight and protect the scoring likes of Bobby Clarke and Reggie Leach. But before long, rather than defending teammates, their style morphed into proactively intimidating opponents.

That evolved into some fierce mayhem, the likes of which you rarely see now. Philadelphia’s fans appreciated the rough stuff, and fighting became ingrained in the franchise’s psyche to where punch-ups remain a feature to be celebrated.

Interestingly, you can partly blame — or thank — a later edition of the Flyers franchise for inadvertently ending some of the worst on-ice nastiness when it engaged in an epic May 1987 brawl with the Montreal Canadiens during warm-ups ahead of Game 6 of the conference finals. With no referees yet on the Montreal Forum ice to break things up, players sprinted back out from the dressing room to join the action — some with no skates or pads on. 

The NHL finally laid down the law after that, imposed whopping fines and suspensions and pretty much ending the era of routine bench-clearing fights that went beyond the parameters of hockey and devolved into street brawling. Even the memorable NHL brawls of the 1990s — most notably between the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings — were almost always in-game dust-ups emanating from on-ice play.

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Today, with new rules resulting in a faster, skills-oriented game, teams no longer carry players who only fight. Combined with knowledge of how head trauma can linger, players today mostly limit NHL fighting to sporadic one-on-one affairs. Fighting is now also mostly a reactive measure to defend teammates and not proactive to intimidate opponents. 

And though some opponents of fighting want it eradicated, some powerful proponents running the league and its teams — many of them former players — want the singular punch-ups kept around. With a faster-paced game, they argue, cheap shots such as cross-checking from behind or lining guys up for open-ice blindsided hits can seriously injure somebody if not policed. 

Even Kraken defenseman Vince Dunn had to drop his gloves and square off in Nashville against the bigger Yakov Trenin after delivering a legal open-ice hit on Predators forward Colton Sissons. Trenin wanted Dunn to know that — legal or not — he wasn’t tolerating teammates being drilled into oblivion.

Likewise, Kraken defenseman Jeremy Lauzon became a target Tuesday in New Jersey after riding young Devils star Jack Hughes hard into the boards.

It’s possible to be a hockey fan and oppose fighting. One way I’d suggest is not to glorify the act. A mascot such as Gritty isn’t throwing real punches or absorbing any while playing to crowds. Most players truly don’t want to fight, just like you wouldn’t on the street while headed off to work.

But many will have to fight at some point. And like it or not, that isn’t about to change anytime soon.