NHL

McKenzie: What exactly is the story on Asham-Beagle anyway?

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Bob McKenzie
10/14/2011 6:00:17 PM
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I am going to go into work tonight for appearances on SportsCentre and That's Hockey and they're going to ask me about the Arron Asham-Jay Beagle fight last night.

Which is fine, that's what I get paid to do. No problem.

I was asked to talk about it last night, within minutes of it happening, on the NHL on TSN panel and that was fine too. Here's what we said about it.

But I knew damn well the shelf life on this story would easily carry over to today as it's what we like to refer to as the obvious "water-cooler talk." That and the fact the media loves to blow up stories like this. Oops, did I just say that out loud?

But here's the problem I always run into: What exactly is the story on Asham-Beagle anyway?

Some hockey fans -- not a lot, but some -- would tell you there's no story at all, not last night and certainly not today. That Beagle, a hard-working depth player who is still trying to establish himself as an everyday NHLer, took liberties where he shouldn't have, cuffing Pittsburgh's excellent defenceman Kris Letang in the head and knocking off Letang's helmet. And that Pittsburgh tough guy Asham, with 80-plus NHL fights on his www.hockeyfights.com resume, did exactly what he's supposed to do in that situation, go over and "deter" Beagle from ever doing that to Letang or any skilled Penguin player again. It is, they maintain, the very reason there is fighting in hockey. Asham asked Beagle to dance, Beagle accepted the invitation and in the tried and true traditions of the game, they squared up, dropped their gloves and settled their differences like real men. Asham knocked out Beagle, Asham celebrated the KO the way Alexander Ovechkin would celebrate a goal and that'll teach Jay Beagle a lesson not to mess with Letang. Story, what story?

I might be inclined to suggest that's a somewhat ignorant view (well, certainly the part endorsing the KO celebration), especially considering the gravity of Beagle's injury at the time. But if Twitter is a useful public opinion tool, and it is, you may be surprised at how many responses I got which reflected precisely that school of thought.

Many more hockey fans, those who do fervently believe fighting has a place in the game, see Beagle-Asham as outlined above, that all of it, including the knockout punch, are things that happen in a hockey game and there was no problem until such time that Asham -- still running on adrenaline after his bout of bare knuckle, hand-to-hand combat -- took a page out of the pro wrestling handbook and did the washout/go to sleep gesture. The fans who champion fighting as part of the game attach a huge level of honor to it and Asham's post-fight gestures were dishonorable. They dishonored him, they dishonored Beagle, they dishonored the game. But since Asham was the first to admit all of that immediately after the game -- giving what appeared to be a sincere and heartfelt apology for allowing his emotions to get the best of him and making "classless" gestures -- it's time we all moved now. Nothing else to see here.
  
Some of the fans who are, say, more middle of the road when it comes to fighting in the NHL, the ones who can take it or leave it but don't have any ridiculously strong feelings one way or the other, maintain that Asham, even though he apologized, needs to be fined or suspended, that one must be responsible for his actions and Asham's actions were definitely out of line and the league must take a stand.

Many other fans, though, who aren't in favor of fighting in hockey, and I would suggest a significant segment of the media who cover the game fall into this category, would ask the following question and ask it in a very pointed fashion: How can a league that, lately anyway, is hellbent on using suspensions to get headshots out of the game in order to minimize concussions and promote player safety possibly rationalize or endorse the Asham-Beagle fight as "part of the game" and be okay with it?

Whatever your stance on fighting in hockey, you have to admit, it's a pretty good question. Or maybe in the interest of fairness, let's call it a "logical" question.

I mean, if an alien landed a spaceship and started watching hockey for the first time and noticed that James Wisniewski got an eight-game suspension for hitting Cal Clutterbuck in the head, the alien might ask: Why is the Wiz being suspended?

The answer would be that concussions are a serious problem, that players have to learn to respect each other more and the league is trying to protect players' brains and make it a safer game. Then the alien would watch Asham punch Beagle in the face and knock him unconscious.

How many games, the alien might ask, will Asham be suspended?

None, unless the league decided to suspend him for making the post-fight gestures.

The alien then might ask: Wait a minute, I thought you said the league is trying to protect players' brains, teach them to respect each other more and make it a safer game. And let me get this straight, those who do want Asham suspended want it to be for making some gestures after the fight is over? That Beagle's brain trauma is fine and dandy, but the "now I lay me down to sleep" gesture Asham did is the real problem?

Uh, yeah....pretty much.

Suffice to say, hockey has never been a logical game.

The Asham-Beagle fight, graphic as it was, comes along a very interesting time for the game.

There is, obviously, the highly-publicized crackdown on head shots, but with the tragic deaths of three NHL players this summer who largely plied their trade by dropping the gloves, it most certainly put fighting in hockey back on the agenda for many.

I am not here to tell you the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak were linked to their occupations as NHL pugilists. I am not here to tell their deaths aren't linked to their roles as fighters. It's a complex issue.

But at the very least, it raised a concern, a question and for those who are anti-fighting or who believe in the absurd incongruity of penalizing headshots but permitting fighting, it's a perfect time to champion the anti-fighting cause.

There is a sense, certainly in many media circles, that the window of opportunity to wage the campaign against fighting has never been more wide open than right now, especially when new NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan was doing a pre-season interview with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge and on a question about fighting, answered something to the effect of the NHL is "looking" at it.

There were never any specifics offered at the time as to what exactly the NHL was "looking" at and there's been nothing since. Some took it to mean the NHL is seriously considering the future of fighting. It got people a little excited.

To which I would say, they're not really looking at anything. Not looking too hard anyway. I took it as a general response for Shanahan to get out of having to deal specifically with the incongruity of a headshot crackdown and fighting in the game.

It doesn't matter whether you're pro fighting or anti fighting, I would strongly suggest this "sense" that the future of fighting is front and centre on the table for discussion couldn't be further from reality. Oh, it is amongst media and fans, but not by any of the constituencies actually involved. I don't care that Don Cherry feels the need to tell us how much he loves fighting and I don't care whether (pick any newspaper columnist who's anti-fighting and there are sooooo many to choose from) thinks it's a blight on the game and civilized society. It doesn't matter what my personal views (conflicted and complex is the short answer) on fighting are. All I really care about is whether there's been any actual movement or consideration of this issue from those whose opinions actually count for something.

I am thoroughly convinced -- in spite of the summertime deaths of the enforcers, the intense concern over brain trauma and the sickening sight of Jay Beagle on the ice last night -- there is little or no anti-fighting movement amongst most of the players who play the game, most of the coaches who coach it, most of the managers who manage it, most of the owners who own it or the league executives who with input from the various constituencies set the agenda on how the game is played.

Actually, I believe there was probably greater anti-fighting sentiment a couple of years ago when the league's GMs proposed stiffer penalties for "staged" fights, a proposal that never saw the light of day because the NHL Players' Association, at the urging of its membership, smacked it down as hard as Asham hit Beagle last night.

The truth is as long as the game is played the anti-fighting crowd is going to knock heads with the pro-fighting crowd and every bout like Asham-Beagle will become a referendum on the larger issue on the future of fisticuffs.

So I hope you'll pardon me for excusing myself from the debate, because I have to tell you that this widely-held notion that fighting is now legitimately on the table for discussion and debate because of the summertime tragedies, the headshot crackdown and concussions concerns...well, I think it's all an illusion and the league -- from the players who play the game to those who sit in league headquarters and everyone in between -- are no closer to questioning the role of fighting in the game than they ever have.

Maybe that will change one day. Maybe all the media and/or fan debates on the issue will eventually effect change. Maybe.

In the meantime, my more immediate concern is I know at work tonight they're going to ask me about Asham-Beagle and given all that I've laid out here, I'm not sure how I'm going to answer the question in the 45 seconds they give me.

Maybe I'll just say I'm looking into it.



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