note: If you're a staunch, unyielding traditionalist in regards to fighting in hockey, this one isn't for you.
The Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Montreal Canadiens are the only teams in the league that have less fighting majors than the New York Rangers do in the 2015-16 season. That is because each of those teams has been assessed just a single fighting major thus far this season. The Blueshirts and the Minnesota Wild have been a little more bellicose: they have each had two fighting majors.
All of the aforementioned teams happen to have winning records (although Detroit is close to .500 hockey) and, as we have learned time and time again, when your team is winning games not much else truly matters. For those of you who love and endorse fighting in hockey, have you found yourself missing it this Rangers season? Or even thinking about the absence of fighting much before reading the headline of this article?
In the preseason the Rangers had two fighting majors in six games. PTO player Brett Bellemore got hammered in a scrap by Tyler Randell of the Boston Bruins on September 24th and Dylan McIlrath tangled with Randell on the 30th and returned the hammering. Since then in 18 regular season games only Kevin Klein and Chris Kreider have thrown their knuckle bones at human faces while wearing New York Rangers jerseys.
Klein dropped his gloves in the sixth game of the season against Kyle Palmieri of the Devils after being challenged by the winger in the closing minute of the first period in what we can only assume was an attempt by Palmieri to spark his team. The Devils were trailing 1-0 at the time. Palmieri took whatever momentum and energy might have been gained in the fight straight into the locker room for 17 minutes where his teammates could stew in it while sitting in their stalls, hydrating, and listening to their coach offer, y'know, some coaching.
The more memorable fight for most Rangers fans was Chris Kreider's tussle with Zack Smith on November 14th. Smith delivered a reckless head shot to Rangers center Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider wasted little time in delivering his idea of justice and retribution in defense of his stricken teammate. He went right after Smith and earned an instigator and a ten minute misconduct for doing so.
Derek Stepan certainly appreciated what his teammate did for him as he made clear after the game talking to the media.
As Stepan pointed out in the interview, Kreider received 17 penalty minutes on the play while Zack Smith got two minutes for interference and five minutes for fighting. It's clear that Stepan was not satisfied with how things panned out for Kreider and how Smith got away with very little punishment. I mention these details because they serve as a very strong example of the case for fighting helping to police the game. This counterpoint is worth mentioning because it does carry some weight for some.
There is, however, a point to be made about just how wise it is to allow and encourage 10 skaters to practice vigilante justice at any point should one of them step out of line for clear or perceived breaches of the rules and codes of the game. Which leads one to ask whether or not there is a better way to eradicate these breaches of rules and codes of the game. In my opinion there is: harsher fines, suspensions, and penalties. How harsh should they be? As harsh as they need to be until we start seeing less hits from behind, head shots, and plays that unnecessarily imperil the health and safety of the athletes in the NHL.
As far as hockey fans go, I'm a pretty adamant critic of fighting and find that it has little place in the game. However, my reaction to the Kreider fight was that, in the grand scheme of things, it was what I hesitatingly call a "good fight." Kreider was coming to the defense of a teammate who was just struck with an illegal hit and by coming to his defense he sent a loud, pellucid message to the other teams in the league: you won't get away with doing this to our players, at least not while I'm on the ice.
Alain Vigneault, who has never been a staunch advocate of fighting in the game, also recognized that what Kreider did for Stepan and the Rangers was significant, "There’s no doubt that when [Kreider] did what he did [Saturday], that sends a message to a lot of players in the league."
However, Kreider's fight with Smith is not what most fights in the NHL look like and are about. There aren't many "feel good" fights happening in the NHL. We all know what staged fights look like and what pointless fights look like. We also all know that each and every hockey fight has the potential to end in serious tragedy and injury. Few people have hit the nail more flushly on the head describing the dangers of fighting and critiquing fighting's continued presence in the game than Adam Proteau of The Hockey News. This is from a piece he wrote on January 24th:
"You don’t and won’t see any neurologist standing up in the future declaring they’ve changed their outlook and calling for a return to bare-knuckle combat. No, when people change their mind with this topic, it’s always someone who grew up loving any type of fighting coming to see the pointlessness of a good many tilts and the destruction wrought by them. Doing so doesn’t make you an effete elitist who wants hockey to become contact-free; it simply means you’re willing to listen to doctors and science when it comes to looking after the health of athletes."
As idyllic and well-intentioned as Kreider's fight and his intentions were, two wrongs don't make a right. Kreider's fight would not have erased any serious injury that Stepan might have suffered and it put both his and Smith's health at risk. Every hockey fight puts a player's health at risk. What needed to happen was for Smith to have never made the dirty play in the first place. Kreider's response was an imperfect solution to a very serious greater problem: players not showing enough respect for one another
Of course, hockey is a fast game and things can and will happen before players have time to process them fully but that doesn't mean the best answer is retribution fights. Will fines and penalties ever be large and potent enough to eradicate dirty and dangerous plays from hockey? Almost certainly not, but we won't ever know until we take the steps necessary to find out.
Perhaps it's time we find out.
What makes fighting in hockey even more exasperating is that the league promotes it. Watch the NHL Network on any given night and watch how often fights are featured in highlight packages. The same is true of NHL.com. It's no mystery why the league does this- some hockey fans want to see fights and want to know when they happen. However, given the dire concerns with the health and safety of players both during and after their careers due to head trauma, having fighting celebrated and promoted feels misguided at best.
Perhaps it's time we speak out.
Now, let's bring our attention back to the Rangers and their lack of pugilism this season.
According to hockeyfights.com the Rangers had 20 fights last season which put them at 24th in the league in fighting majors. Tanner Glass had 9 fights, Klein and Kreider each had 3 apiece, and five other Rangers each had one scrap in 2014-15. Glass is now playing in Hartford and although Dylan McIlrath is the team's de facto seventh defenseman, the Rangers now don't truly have what most of us would call a "tough guy" on the team, and that is just the way it should be.
You don't need to fight to win hockey games so the Rangers haven't been fighting. Perhaps that story was different ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, but that is a poor excuse to tolerate fighting's continued existence in the game.
Without fighting the game is still a pleasure to watch. There's still plenty of speed, hitting, scoring, and other cause to get out of your seat and cause your adrenaline to boil watching the greatest game on earth. The Rangers don't need to fight to win hockey games and hockey doesn't need fighting to be hockey. When all is said and done, it's just not worth it.
Thanks for reading. Let's go Rangers.