Scotty Bowman Exclusive Interview on Fighting

March 9, 2009 by Tom Ferda 

Published at Inside Hockey Magazine and The Examiner – March 9, 2009.

Originally from Detroit, Tom is a Los Angeles based writer covering the NHL. His NHL material has been published in several national magazines including The Hockey News (Canada) and USA Hockey Magazine as well as the New York Daily News, Washington Times, Men’s Book and 360 Thrashers Magazine. Contact Tom at tom@tomferda.com

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Scotty Bowman Wants NHL Fighting Rule Changes

INTERVIEW & ARTICLE by Tom Ferda

CHICAGO – Every season there’s talk around the NHL about implementing stricter fight rules to clamp down on some of the game’s excessive violence.

While many fans don’t mind seeing a little bit of blood stain the ice, the buzz about enforcing harsher fight rules has gained unprecedented momentum this year, and is fueled by two serious minor league incidents, one that resulted in death.

Both of the incidents were the result of fighting and in both cases, the players lost their helmets during their altercations.

Don Sanderson, a 21-year-old rookie playing in the OHA, drifted into a coma and died on January 2 after slamming his head on the ice during what looked like a typical hockey fight in a game a few weeks earlier.

Right off the opening face-off of an AHL contest, Garrett Klotz and Kevin Westgarth, both 6-ft 5-in averaging 241 pounds, purposely tossed their helmets aside and went toe-to-toe. Klotz, who got the worst of the long altercation, dropped to the ice and went into a 30-40 second seizure, convulsing after suffering a serious head injury.

With mandatory visor rules in effect in the minor leagues, it is becoming common practice among enforcers in the (AP Photo/Paul Warner)ECHL and AHL to purposely remove their helmets prior to engaging in fisticuffs and this has many people concerned.

NHL icon Scotty Bowman holds a laundry list of coaching records including 1,244 regular season wins and 9 Stanley Cups and is currently the Senior Advisor for Hockey Operations for the Chicago Black Hawks. Now in his fifth decade in the NHL, he has seen drastic changes over the years and believes it is time to look hard at the situation.

“I think there will be [fight] legislation. Some of these players nowadays are well over 200 lbs, so when the helmets come off that’s the biggest danger I see,” said Bowman.

“In the past I was concerned about players breaking their hands in a fight. Some of these guys now are 6′4″ and 240-250 lbs. We didn’t have that twenty-five years ago. You get guys this size falling on each other without [head] protection, you’re just waiting for a fatality and that is tragic.”

Bowman is no stranger to head injuries. While playing in juniors, he suffered a career-ending head injury and was forced to hang up the skates, “That was from a stick, not a fight. [We] had leather helmets that offered no protection. It would protect you from a cut maybe but not an injury like I had.”

Bowman clearly is opposed to what he refers to as ‘stage fighting’ like in the case of the Klotz/Westgarth bout. Both players were on the ice for one purpose only, to fight and that particular premeditated brawl led to a serious injury.

“It’s hard to stamp [fighting] out but they can curtail the helmets coming off and stop the stage fighting; the fights that start 3 or 4 seconds after the puck is dropped,” Bowman stressed.

NHLPA Director Paul Kelly took that same topic on during a recent interview. “Fights which arise out of the emotion, the spontaneity of the game, is actually a part of our game that should remain,” explained Kelly.

“What I have a real problem with are these staged, pre-arranged fights. Two heavyweights squaring off before a face-off or texting each other leading up to a game. These are the guys who are 6′6″ and 250 lbs. and can, frankly, deliver the most damage. It’s awkward and uncomfortable to watch some of those fights when you’re in an arena.”

Kelly also mentioned the NHL could possibly consider adding a rule mandating players to keep their helmets on during the course of a fight. If a helmet comes off during an altercation, officials could be required to step in and stop it immediately.

When Atlanta Thrasher enforcer Eric Boulton was asked if it is realistic to expect two players in the heat of the battle to suddenly stop throwing punches if a helmet comes off, he was quick to respond, “No it’s absolutely not [realistic]. I don’t like that rule at all,” said Boulton. “I don’t know how you would ever enforce that.”

It’s hard to imagine that players caught up in a high-adrenaline slugfest would be capable of stopping a fight if a helmet came off, but that seems to be the suggestion picking up the most steam. So that presents the question ‘How can you make a rule like that work?’

“They would have to have legislation for that,” Bowman responded. “The penalties have to be so severe that the players will stop fighting and won’t take the chance [of getting disciplined]“.

Boulton elaborated on potential rule changes. “I think there could be a few [new] rules put in place, like not removing the helmet and maybe implementing a rule that you can’t toss a guy [to the ice] in a fight. That’s where an injury can occur with a guy banging his head on the ice.”

Regardless of intense public heat put on the leagues to implement tighter regulations or ban fighting from the sport, don’t expect fighting to completely disappear from the game. Eliminating such a popular and traditional asset of the game would create uproar from the fan base and cause economic strain on the sport.

Like it or not, some fans come out to see the fights. There’s a reason hard-nosed NHL players like Donald Brashear, Riley Cote and Jared Boll are fan favorites.

Bowman was asked how he felt about one-dimensional players who are strictly enforcers. “I think enforcers will become a dying breed in the NHL. The problem I have is guys I call ‘irregular players’ that play less than 5 minutes in a game and they are there [only] to fight”.

Many, including Boulton, believe an unwritten ‘code of ethics’ exists between the fighters in the NHL.

“I would say 99% of the guys are respectable of each other and their jobs,” said Boulton. “We all know it’s a hard job to do and you need to have that respect. I’ve seen a lot of that this year, if a guy goes down [players] not hitting him or if a jersey goes over a head; not hitting him, things like that.”

In the NHL where there are no mandatory visor rules in place, players normally keep their helmets on when they fight unless they agree to remove them for dramatic effect to bring the crowds to their feet.

Those gladiator-type scenarios may soon be over if the NHL gets aggressive and implements sterner rules with disciplinary consequences.

Contact Tom via email: tom@tomferda.com