2009 NHL All-Star Game: Bettman in no hurry to end fighting

By Ken McKenna

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman today held his annual mid-season "State of the NHL" press conference in Montreal following the Board of Governors meeting. The press conference was held at the historic Windsor Hotel (now called Windsor Hall), site of the birth of both the NHL and the Montreal Canadiens franchise.

Aside from discussion of the league’s collective bargaining agreement, perhaps the hottest topic for the media was the role of fighting in the NHL and in the game of hockey. The event that led to this discussion was a fight in an AHL game the previous night between the Philadelphia Phantoms and the Manchester Monarchs. Phantoms’ forward Garrett Klotz suffered a seizure on the ice following a battle with the Monarchs’ Kevin Westgarth. Klotz is expected to be released from the hospital today.

The incident follows closely on the heels of the death of Canadian senior AAA player Don Sanderson, who died January 2nd from injuries he had suffered after hitting his head on the ice following a fight in a December 12th game. Stevenson succumbed to his injuries after spending nearly three weeks in a coma.

Commissioner Bettman took the position that, despite these incidents, the league will not be changing its rules regarding fighting in the NHL.

"Based on conversations that I have constituencies – players, owners, managers, coaches – I don’t think that there’s an appetite to abolish fighting from the game, and there are lots of reasons for that, including the fact that it’s been a part of the game", stated Bettman.

"But I do think what we’re going to have to take a good, hard look at is what I described to the board is, for lack of a better term, the rules of engagement – how a fight gets initiated, what happens with chinstraps and helmets, what happens with take downs."

When pressed for clarification of his "rules of engagement" for a fight, Bettman further explained his position as to how this issue could be handled.

"My view of that", explained the Commissioner, "is when two guys are getting ready to square off, making sure that you’re not dealing with a sucker punch where somebody comes up and is not expecting to get into it. Chinstraps, helmets, chinstraps tight enough so helmets don’t come off accidentally. Whether or not helmets should come off at all. Take-downs, whether or not that’s a good thing because that seems to be a common denominator in some of the tragic incidents we’ve seen. Visors, the whole issue of how to untangle once you’ve tangled. Things of that nature."

As is the case with many in the game of hockey, Commissioner Bettman takes the view that fighting is part of the game and that it has a certain appeal for many fans of the game.

"I think (fighting) has become integral in terms of how the game is played", said Bettman. "I think it acts as a bit of a thermostat, if you will, as to what takes place on the ice. And I believe that most of our fans enjoy that aspect of the game. I don’t think it’s the be-all, end-all of our game. I always believed that it was an incidental part of our game, but it is part of the game."

It should be noted that the OHL announced earlier this month at the CHL Top Prospects Game that the league had instituted a rule stating that a player that removes his helmet during a fight, or that loosens his chinstrap prior to or during a fight, would face a game misconduct and an automatic one-game suspension. This rule change was precipitated by Stevenson’s death.

After the press conference, the Commissioner addressed this writer’s question regarding the status of a transfer agreement with the IIHF and European hockey federations.

"We don’t have an agreement, we’ve been without an agreement for a year", stated Bettman. "The countries have re-engaged with us because they, frankly, would like to have an agreement with us going forward – other than the Russians. We met, actually, during the World Juniors in Ottawa with the IIHF and some of the federations and began that dialogue."

When pressed regarding the intransigence of Russia related to these negotiations, the Commissioner did not hide his displeasure with that country’s hockey federation.

"I think Russia’s just not in the mix anymore", Bettman stated flatly. "Because of their unwillingness to honor valid contracts, we’re just not comfortable engaging with them right now." 

Bettman also touched on the fact that, this year, the Montreal Canadiens currently are celebrating a century of existence. The team was founded in 1909, with the NHL coming into existence eight years later in this same city. The Commissioner cited the historic significance of the site of this weekend’s festivities, and what the city of Montreal and the Montreal Canadiens franchise has meant to the game of hockey.

"It’s more about re-connecting than doing the right thing", said Bettman. "People seem to be interested throughout the world of the fact that this franchise is 100-years old. There are lots of teams that want the All-Star Game. We’re now back 16 years later, and some teams haven’t gotten it yet. But we felt it was important to acknowledge this historic moment by bringing the All-Star Game – and the NHL Draft – to this city.