NHL

Fraser: Why not let the players 'go at it' and fight?

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Kerry Fraser
10/28/2011 3:58:52 PM
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Got a question on rule clarification, comments on rule enforcements or some memorable NHL stories? Kerry Fraser wants to answer your emails at cmonref@tsn.ca!

Hi Kerry,

In Thursday night's Canadiens-Bruins game, P.K. Subban and Brad Marchand went at each other twice in the second period. The first time, each got two for holding but we could see they were ready to go at it. The second time, they got out of their penalty boxes and the linemen jumped in to separate them again - giving them each a delay of game penalty. It wasn't until they skated back out after the two minutes that they FINALLY got a chance to dance and they each got their five for fighting.

My question is: As an official, you could probably see as the game progressed, they were wanting to drop the gloves. Why not let them go at it the first time, let their frustrations and emotions out and save both players and teams the time and hassle so they can finally play some hockey?

Andrew,
Toronto

Andrew: You have a very valid point since fighting is allowed in our game; at least for the time being! Once P.K. Subban and Brad Marchand stepped out of the penalty box following their initial coincidental holding minor infractions it only took six seconds for them to return to the box with delay of game penalties and them just two seconds after stepping on the ice for play to be stopped for the eventual fight.

Delaying the inevitable might seem like a senseless and futile exercise performed by the linesmen which can cause unnecessary delay and turn the game into a "side-show" as we saw in this case. 'Player protection' however is the primary reason why the linesmen are instructed to flex their muscles in an attempt to prevent fights wherever possible, aside from it being just part of their job description. (Is anyone laughing out loud yet?) That's right, player protection!

This philosophy and League instruction to the linesmen goes back many years when the there was no instigator penalty and bare knuckle policing also allowed for a team to take an opposing star player off the ice for at least five minutes or more.  Even if the star was a willing combatant or forced to drop the gloves to save face, the team lost the services of that player for his time served in the box. The player also ran the risk of breaking a hand and ending up on the injury shelf which happened on more than one occasion. 

A classic example of a star player who was more than willing and could go toe-to-toe with the best of them was former Leafs captain Wendel Clark. He was fearless and threw a right hand like a jackhammer. While I never saw him lose a fight I believe Wendel was far more valuable on the ice than watching from the penalty box.

Team general managers also complained when their skilled players were forced to fight and became injured as the linesmen stood back and either let it happen or didn't intervene quickly enough if their player was taking a beating.  It was also used a ploy to have a star player ejected from the game.

In my first trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs (1982-83) I worked Game 3 in the best of five series between the Chicago Blackhawks and Blues in St. Louis. The Blues needed a win to avoid a series sweep and force another game back in Chicago. A secondary fight was instigated by a St. Louis 4th line player as a ploy to have Hawk star Al Secord ejected from the game after an initial fight broke out early in the third period. Secord, like Clark, was always a willing, tough combatant but in this case did everything he could to avoid be ejected. In the end the gloves came off and Al attended to business. (Under the rules at the time, players involved in a secondary fight were to receive an automatic game misconduct regardless of which player was deemed to instigate the fight.) 

As John D'Amico was escorting the Hawk star off the ice with his game misconduct penalty, Secord gave the St. Louis fans what J.D. termed to be an obscene gesture. D'Amico, a proud Italian and legendary Hockey Hall of Fame linesman, insisted that I assess an additional game misconduct for Secord's gesture. Knowing that a second game misconduct assessment would incur an automatic one game suspension I pleaded with John to reconsider. J.D. would have none of it and said he would assess it himself if I didn't!

Secord was suspended for the next game in Chicago and my telephone rang the moment I walked into the house after returning from St. Louis. Scotty Morrison, NHL Referee-in-Chief, had already received an early Sunday morning call from Bill Wirtz, owner of the Blackhawks and Chairman of the NHL Board of Governors. Scotty was hot and wanted to know what in hell would cause me to assess a second game misconduct that resulted in the automatic suspension to Al Secord. (I fired Denis Savard out of that game and he picked up an automatic one game suspension as well so the Hawks were going to be without their top two players. Needless to say that was last assignment in my first playoff season despite the fact the Hawks won game 4 back in Chicago and eliminated the Blues.)

All of the linemen, past and present, take this part of their job very seriously and do their very best to prevent player injury and provide protection to the players; sometimes even at their own peril. D'Amico and Kevin Collins were two linesmen that would enter altercations on their own in an attempt to break it up before fights ever got underway. Many nights I worked with John D'Amico he would have more blood on his face than the players fighting as he would take shots to protect the guy he had in hand.

Collins took a direct hit right between the eyes one night in Philadelphia that split him wide open. This didn't dissuade these guys from continuing to jump in quickly. Just ask the Flyers fan that while giving Tie Domi the business from behind the safety of the plexi-glass behind the penalty box found himself up close and personal inside the box with Tie when the glass caved in. Domi started thumping the guy but was quickly joined by linesman Collins to form a tag-team as they both the player and official got their shots in.  The Flyers fan became something of a local hero for taking one for the team.

One night in Maple Leaf Gardens just before the playoffs, linesman Leon Stickle took the player protection issue to excess.  As things were starting to heat up 'Big Stick' grabbed Jimmy 'Crack' Corn and bulldogged the Leaf player to the ice right at center ice. I heard a terrible yelp from Jim Corn after Leon landed on the player and separated his shoulder that put him out for 6 weeks and the playoffs! (The Maple Leafs made the playoffs that season. No, it wasn't 1993.)

Finally, I learned my lesson about saying the three most feared words a ref can say to a player that really doesn't want to fight; those words are, "Let 'em go!"

It was in the late 1970's and in one particular game I was really getting tired of seeing players enter a scrum and yap at one another from between the protection of the linesmen. Finally I had enough and told the two linemen to step aside. I then said to the two 'yappers', "If you guys want to fight go ahead and fight." The one player said
to the other one, "You wanna go?" The other guy said, "Sure, let's go." 

Well they not only fought, but everybody on the ice joined in including the goalkeepers. The benches then emptied and the brawl lasted a good 20 minutes!  I sat up writing a game report until 2:30 in the morning. That was the last time I promoted a fight and was content to allow the linesmen to intervene whenever possible and "protect" the players.

I took the long way around it Andrew but I hope you might better understand why linesmen Scott Driscoll and Matt MacPherson did their very best to prevent the inevitable between P.K. Subban of the Canadiens and Brad Marchand of the Bruins.  


P.K. Subban (Photo: Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)
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