TORONTO - The head of the NHL Players' Association believes it's time to consider a rule mandating helmet use during fights, and to examine the role of one-dimensional enforcers in the game.
While a "clear majority" of players want fighting to remain a part of hockey, Paul Kelly feels his constituency is open to new restrictions on how the gloves are dropped.
"A couple that we've talked about that ought to be looked at anyway is, do you consider a rule whereby players need to keep a helmet on during the course of a fight, and perhaps require officials to step in if a helmet comes off during a fight," Kelly told reporters ahead of Wednesday's Conn Smythe Celebrities Dinner and Auction.
"If it's true that when guys get hurled to the ice or tripped to the ice and bang their skull on the ice is where the real danger comes from, then maybe we can protect against that. It's certainly something worth looking at."
Kelly, however, didn't stop there.
Acknowledging the role fighting has in policing the tenor of play on the ice, he added that so-called "staged fights" between two players with skill sets limited to chucking knuckles may no longer have a place on the ice. The damage strong men creeping toward seven feet in height and over 250 pounds in weight can do may have simply become too dangerous.
"If it's a staged fight between two superheavyweights that perhaps arranged it a day before the game, I'm not so sure those are the fights that we need to continue to have in the sport," said Kelly. "And if they're the most dangerous fights, we ought to take a good, hard look at those. ...
"I'm not advocating elimination of their jobs, I'm talking about the question of safety. If those guys can hold a roster spot and skate on a fourth line and play and engage in fights which arise from the emotion of the game, great. But if they're only there for one purpose, then I think that's at least one issue our competition committee will take a hard look at."
Kelly's comments come less than two weeks after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said fighting's "rules of engagement" will be examined during a general managers meeting in March.
The fighting debate has been on a low boil since March 2007 when league disciplinarian Colin Campbell suggested it was time to "ask the question" of whether fisticuffs belonged in the hockey.
He made the comment amid concern after Todd Fedoruk was taken from the ice on a stretcher after he was knocked out in a fight, and the incidents have only become more worrisome since.
The issue became magnified last month after Ontario senior men's league player Don Sanderson fell into a coma after striking his head on the ice during a fight and later died. A few weeks later Garrett Klotz suffered a seizure and was taken from the ice on a stretcher after a fight in an American Hockey League game.
The Ontario Hockey League has since instituted rules to ensure players keep their helmets on during fights, while the AHL said it would follow the NHL's lead.
Kelly insisted that the issue needs a thorough examination by the NHL's competition committee, and that fighting should not be eliminated in a knee-jerk reaction.
"We shouldn't allow one tragic event to dictate wholesale rule changes in our sport," he said.
Instead, Kelly argued that fights arising "out of the spontaneity of the game, the adrenaline of the game, the emotion and the need to protect a teammate or yourself from an unclean hit," were a natural part of hockey and were a required element of the sport.
He went on to say that Wayne Gretzky would have played "several hundred" fewer games in his career if not for the likes of Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley on his teams, an argument Don Cherry has made on countless occasions.
"What would have happened is teams would have gone after him and when you have guys in there to protect the star players, the skill players, the people fans pay good money to go watch, it deters that type of conduct, it protects those star players," said Kelly. "It actually in many respects reduced the amount of violence in our sport.
"Fighting isn't just there for some gratuitous reason. It's there because there's a need to self police, there's a need to protect those kinds of players in our sport. And I think that if you get rid of fighting, you're going to have some consequences that are very unfortunate."
Indeed, Kelly says the main issue to come up during his tour of NHL teams was hits to the head and the players' desire for more rules to prevent them.
Since it had yet to become the hot-button issue it is now, fighting wasn't a matter players were polled on.
But Kelly was confident in saying, "just based upon my conversations with players over several months, I would say the clear majority of NHL players, even in a confidential survey, would support the continuation of fighting in our sport."
He later added, "they might want to see some restrictions."