New York Rangers, Washington Capitals drop the gloves in wild brawl
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
There is a lot happening in the National Hockey League. The Stanley Cup playoffs are less than a week away, excitement is building ahead of the expansion Seattle Kraken joining next season and … oh, wait, you wanted to talk about the fights?
We can do that, but just be aware, if you haven’t followed hockey for a while, they don’t fight so much these days, the enforcers of yesteryear aren’t nearly as common and … OK, I’ll stop now. I get it. You still want to talk about the fights.
We’re talking about the fights because, Wednesday night, there were a lot of them. In response to a lingering controversy surrounding Tom Wilson, a leader on the Washington Capitals and one of the NHL’s most divisive players, a series of early brawls broke out during his team’s clash with the New York Rangers.
Before the first five minutes of the opening period were done, the matchup at Madison Square Garden had become like Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, with multiple punches thrown and a whopping 72 minutes of penalty box time meted out, a number that would later grow to 141.
The moment Wilson entered the fray, 49 seconds in, Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith went right at him, and the pair traded blows. Smith openly admitted his actions were intended as retribution.
"I had no beef with anybody else on their team," Smith told reporters. "I felt it should’ve been handled before this game and it wasn’t, so unfortunately it had to be on my shoulders."
The glut of brawls is the kind of thing that is now a serious rarity in the NHL, where fighting has been toned down drastically in recent years, as the electrifying speed and skill of the sport has meant the "goons" – players employed primarily for their physicality and willingness to mix it up – have become squeezed out.
According to HockeyFights.com, a website that tracks such things statistically and with videos of every NHL brawl where fans are encouraged to vote on who won the scrap, the regularity of fights has dropped to 0.19 per game.
A fight is designated where at least one player earned a major "fighting" penalty. Back in 2008-09, 41% of NHL games featured at least one brawl, meaning there was a good chance of seeing two teams scrap any time you tuned in.
It is time here for an admission, made with more than a slight tinge of guilt. If not for the Wednesday fights, which followed on from a wild series of events centered around Wilson when the teams met on Monday night, this column probably wouldn’t be talking about hockey today.
Perhaps we should have been. One of the sad things about Wednesday’s furor is that it overshadowed the heartwarming tale of Capitals winger T.J. Oshie scoring a game-sealing hat-trick in his first game after his beloved father Tim passed away.
The reality is that in present day, hockey sometimes finds it hard to compete in the national storyline stakes with the NBA, Major League Baseball and the National Football League, even when football is still months away from its seasonal return.
When it does get firmly on the radar, it’s often because of, you guessed it – fights.
It’s human nature, isn’t it? It takes a somewhat sustained investment of time, or perhaps a history of growing up with hockey, to wrap your head around shift patterns and to get used to the frenetic pace.
Everyone can understand a fight. It’s two guys dropping their gloves and trying to punch each other, with the added wrinkle that they happen to be skating on ice at the same time.
The move away from fighting has happened somewhat organically as the game has evolved. The NHL hasn’t exactly clamped down with an iron fist of its own. Several years ago, NFL Commissioner Gary Bettman insisted fighting was an inherent part of the game and the talk out of New York is that Wednesday’s royal rumble came about because the league had been too lenient.
On Monday, Wilson punched Rangers forward Pavel Buchnevich in the back of the head while he lay face down, then, in the altercation that followed, slammed Artemi Panarin down onto the ice. Panarin will miss the remainder of the season. Wilson’s punishment was a $5,000 fine and no suspension.
A statement from the Rangers – which came during a remarkable 24 hours in which general manager Jeff Gorton and president John Davidson both parted ways with the franchise – blasted the league’s player safety chief George Parros and gave a scathing assessment of Wilson’s conduct.
Wilson remains a lightning rod. Capitals fans say his reputation for roughness means he comes under unfair scrutiny. Others want him kicked out of the league. He’s been suspended five times.
"Wilson always seems to be right where he is now, at the center of controversy," wrote Barry Svrluga in the Washington Post. "The Capitals are always left to defend him." That’s a difference of opinion for which there will be no agreement, not any time soon.
Regardless of Wilson and his growing role as the sport’s primary bad guy, hockey doesn’t have much reason to talk about its "Fight Club" these days. Except that when it does happen, especially as explosively as it did on Wednesday, it’s all anyone wants to talk about.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.