The NHL is trying to have it both ways with fighting, and it’s endangering the players

Fighting in the NHL is and has been a hot topic of debate for quite some time now. Every year, those who follow and analyze the game seem to circle back around to discuss whether the NHL should take more strides to eradicate fighting from the game.

It hasn’t happened — at least not yet — but there certainly seems to be a directive given by the league to its officials to limit the number of bouts on the ice this year.

Just look at the scene that unfolded during last night’s Bruins-Sabres tilt in Buffalo:

In the first period, Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid sought out Sabres forward William Carrier after Carrier delivered a controversial high hit that injured Boston’s David Backes a few minutes earlier in the game. Carrier seemed ready to answer the bell with McQuaid and they squared up.

But the two linesmen working the game took it upon themselves to get in between the two willing combatants and prevent a fight at all costs. This certainly isn’t the first time that this has happened. Officials stepping in to separate players before a fight develops seems to be becoming more and more common in today’s NHL. Heck, it’s the second time it has happened to McQuaid this week.

The difference was that this time, the officials’ efforts failed. McQuaid and Carrier were already engaged and trying to throw punches.

Instead of protecting the players, what the officials did was not only put themselves in harm’s way, but also further endanger the players involved. At one point, one of the linesmen can be seen holding McQuaid’s arm down while the defenseman was forced to eat punches from a still-swinging Carrier. After all was said and done, McQuaid got a bloody face and 17 minutes in penalties for his troubles.

Allowing players to drop the gloves to settle feuds or seek their own form of on-ice justice has been a central part of NHL hockey for a long time. To a certain extent, players are allowed to police the game, and that’s something that many fans love and don’t want to see taken out of the game.

But new evidence indicates that players, especially enforcer types who fight frequently, are endangering their short and long-term health by fighting. While that may not seem like an overly shocking development, the extent of the damage that can be done is frightening and worrisome.

Watching these enforcers go at it, it’s hard not to think about Derek Boogaard — nicknamed “The Boogeyman” as one of the NHL’s most feared fighters — who died suddenly at the age of 28 in 2011. He’s not the first NHL tough guy to pass away at a young age and, unfortunately, he probably won’t be the last.

So, while it’s understandable that the league would want to eliminate unnecessary fighting from the game, they seem to be misled in their current approach. Instead of establishing a hard stance against fighting and banning it completely — a decision that would likely be met with significant resistance from fans and players alike — the league appears to be taking a more silent and stealthy approach to phasing it out of the game.

This leaves both players and officials in a difficult and dangerous position. Without an outright ban, players are operating under the assumption that they’re still allowed to fight if they’re ready and willing. Meanwhile, officials seem to be operating under a mandate that if they’re in a position to stop a fight from happening, they must do so.

Not only does that leave officials in a position where they can get injured catching a rogue punch, but it also means that players now may have to worry about simultaneously throwing fists with an opponent while also having to battle the restraints of a referee or linesman. As a result, fighting in the NHL could be more dangerous than ever. Not exactly the desired result for the league.

If the NHL truly wants to cut fighting out of the game — and it’s starting to seem that way — then they have to clear about it. Taking half-measures only makes things worse.