Thursday Mail Bag
Another week, another packed mail bag.
The fighting debate sparked anew in recent weeks figures prominently this week, with the battle raging on over the meaning of a Harris-Decima poll this week that showed a slight majority of Canadians - not necessarily Canadian hockey fans - support an end to fighting in the NHL. I’ve been gratified by the responses to the issue all week, both for and against fighting. When people are passionate but also respectful of the point of view of others, the quality of the whole debate goes up.
What seems pretty clear to me is that while both sides are passionate about their beliefs, I haven’t yet heard from a single person who once decried the presence of fighting in the game but now embraces it, while many have written to say they once didn’t mind boxing on skates but could now live without it.
Seems to me pro-fighting folks need to do a much better job as persuading others that they hold a logical position. Being louder isn’t working.
Now on to this week’s mail bag:
Q: Damien, I know my wife would vote against fighting in the NHL but, I also know that even if fighting were banned in the NHL, she wouldn't be buying a ticket to a game ever or watch it on TV. I don't think we should change the game to suit people who couldn't care less about it. Let’ ask hockey fans (the ones that pay the $$$ to watch) what they think and I'm sure the result would be different.
Dan Henry, Vancouver
A: Personally, I think it’s useful to know what people in general think, both rabid hockey fans and those who aren’t so rabid. I’m not really one for simply dismissing the thoughts of those who disagree with what I think. I think it’s worth trying to understand them, and put them in perspective.
From my point of view, I don’t dismiss at all the results of this latest Harris-Decima poll that showed 68 per cent of those who identify themselves as a passionate NHL fans want to keep fighting in the game. That said, from the way the fighting crowd talks, I would have thought it was more like 90 per cent, and it also means that basically 1 in 3 hardcore NHL fans could live without fighting. That’s a significant number that shouldn’t be ignored.
I agree the game shouldn’t be changed to fit the interests of those who don’t like hockey. At the same time, I think any sport should always be trying to build - not stay stagnant - and it’s a fact that in cities like Toronto fewer kids are playing the game today, which could affect the game over the long term. Really, I could just as easily say that asking people who already like a certain sport about a specific element of that sport isn’t going to tell you that much either. So the idea is to try and get a larger cross-section of public opinion, and see what that tells you.
Q: Hi Damien,
Your stance on fighting is well documented. How do you respond to the assertion that legislating fighting out of the game will inevitably lead to the decline and eventual disappearance of bodychecking? The reasoning behind such an assertion is that when fighting is gone, the spotlight will be on checking as soon as someone is taken off the ice on a stretcher after a vicious, though clean hit. All of the same arguments can - and will - be made about checking that are being made now about fighting; the game can be played without it, it impedes the skilled players from doing their thing, it causes serious injuries, it's only a matter of time before someone gets killed, etc. As someone who has professed a love for the physical aspect of the game, how do you respond to that, and how do you feel about a game that potentially lacks almost any kind of physical contact?
Another question, if I may; the expression 'selling the game' is tossed around a lot. Has it ever occurred to you that the NHL, more than any other league, has sold out its core fans for the sake of penetrating 'non-traditional' markets? Furthermore, does this not strike you as a horrible business model, and the chief reason that the league is in the shambles that it is? Should we not abandon the notion of 'selling the game' and stop taking for granted the third, fourth, and fifth generation fans who fill the seats, watch the games (and all-important commercials) on TV, and buy the merchandise?
Noam Sugarman, Toronto
A: Okay, first question. I don’t agree at all that bodychecking can be considered in the same realm as fighting. Hitting is within the rules. Hockey is a contact sport, which is part of its greatness. The use of bodychecking to play defence and create offence is, to me, an indispensable part of the game. That it causes injuries is unfortunate, but clearly an acceptable element of a contact sport. Fighting, by contrast, is illegal even within the NHL rulebook, and serves no purpose in terms of defensive or offensive hockey. As someone smarter than me has pointed out, if fighting is part of the game, why do they stop the game when a fight breaks out?
In terms of “selling the game,” I couldn’t really care less about non-traditional markets. I’m really interested more in Canada, for better or worse. Studies are showing that enrollment in hockey is dropping for a variety of reasons. Moreover, studies consistently show that more than half of Canadian boys stop playing hockey by the age of 14, and that’s partly because of the intimidating atmosphere created by a hockey culture that embraces fighting. Finally, junior hockey in Canada has gradually restricted fighting more and more over the past decade, but is more popular now than ever with more teams selling more tickets. To me, that’s growing the game.
Q: Damien, two things jump out at me about this poll;
1. It was a poll of regular everyday folk, not NHL fans. I would think the NHL should care more about what its fans think than what non-fans think. (although an argument could be made perhaps those non-fans are scared away by the fighting. I can't imagine their numbers are large though)
2. Over 60% of the key demographic the NHL wants (males under 35) still want fighting to be allowed. I agree that there should be something done given the public sentiment (although I wouldn't doubt this sentiment will die down once memories of the recent fighting injuries/deaths fade), but banning fighting outright is not the answer. It is part of NHL hockey whether you like it or hate it, and lots of fans will be upset if it is banned.
Why not implement a simple system like with FIFA soccer (football for those who take offence to soccer!) - a player would receive a yellow card if they get in a fight. 2 yellows, over a certain period of time (say 3-5 games) and that warrants a 1 game suspension. That should take a lot of the needless fighting out of the game but still leave the option for the players to police themselves as they always have.
Suffice to say, I think the NHL will lose a lot more fans than they would gain, so I see no rationale to banish the act altogether.
Bill L., Toronto
A: You believe that the key demographic of which you speak would walk away from the game if there was no fighting. I’d say there’s no evidence to support that.
In terms of your rules amendments, it’s not a bad idea. But to me, it’s like the Bettman notion of addressing the “rules of engagement,” which may mean clamping down on helmet removal, chinstraps and takedowns. All of these changes would likely reduce fighting, but wouldn’t it be more straightforward and proactive rather than tinkering with the issue to take a strong stance and ban it?
To me, I really couldn’t care less if two idiots in the NHL want to break each other’s orbital bones night after night. What I care about is the effect on the rest of the sport at other levels, and quite frankly I’ve long felt it was unfair that young men are given these lucrative professional opportunities simply because they can fight ahead of those who are more skilled but don’t drop the gloves. Look at every known enforcer in the NHL today, and there might be one or perhaps two that could actually hold down a big league job if there was no fighting.
Q: I was just reading in one of your columns that Brian Burke may be willing to trade Toronto's first round pick if he can get his hands on Jay Bouwmeester and get him signed long-term. With Toronto supposed to be sellers at the deadline do you think this is a wise decision? No doubt Bouwmeester is a world-class defender but if Toronto drops further in the standings and they have a shot at Tavares or Hedman or even Paajarvi, wouldn't it be just as smart to hold on to the top pick considering Tavares can be the franchise player Toronto needs?
Patrick Savoury, Rose Blanche, NL
A: This is a fascinating question. Basically, the question is are you better off with a 25-year-old proven NHL player of high quality that you have to pay upwards of $6 million to, or with an 18-year-old who may or may not be an NHL star? I guess the answer is to go with the proven commodity, although that decision will have obvious salary cap implications down the line. Bouwmeester is going to be a top player in the league for the next decade at least, and that’s about as far into the future as anyone can look. All this said, it would be a disappointment to an awful lot of people if the Leafs did this, if only because the hope and optimism that comes with a top draft selection can invigorate an entire organization. Ideally, for the Leafs anyway, no one will be able to sign Bouwmeester before free agency, and Brian Burke will get his shot then without giving up draft picks or players.
Q: Damien, no question here, but I just wanted to point out something from the breakaway challenge. It was missed by the announcers, as well as every article I have read, that when Ovechkin dropped one of the sticks, he kept the left-handed stick and scored. Nobody seemed to realize that he is right-handed. Makes that move actually impressive rather than just entertaining.
Blair Cunningham, Oakville
A: I’m not sure it was missed. It was pretty clear to me he should stick to shooting right-handed. Fact is, by the way, a lot of players can switch hands. Saw Todd Bertuzzi of the Flames do it in a game just last night, and Gordie Howe used to be particularly proficient at it. When Ovechkin does it in a game and scores a goal, then I’ll be impressed.
Q: Where does Grabovski top out as a player on a contending team? First line? Second Line? 40, 30? 20 goals? 80 points? 60-70 points? Any comparisons to another player active or retired?
A: Are we talking about the same player? The one who has 12 goals and 12 assists and hasn’t scored since before Christmas? Look, I think at 24, Grabovski is pretty much was he is. There’s things to like about him, but at best I would argue he’s a second liner on an average team and less than that on a really good team. Over time, he should top out at around 50 points a season. What you’ve seen is that teams are going to play him a lot harder in the second half, and he’s not thriving. To me, I’ve always seen him as a poor man’s Scott Gomez, and Gomez isn’t a big scorer in the league today. The Leafs would like to think he can be Derek Roy, but that seems to be a reach.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Grabovski is terrible. But wouldn’t you rather have the second round pick now that Cliff Fletcher gave up for him, probably one of the top 35 picks in this summer’s draft? Over time, I just doubt he’ll fit the Brian Burke profile of what he wants his team to look like.
Q: Hello Damien,
Mine is a two-part question.
First, do you think the Leafs should be in a hurry to trade Kaberle?
And to follow up, do you think it's tougher to find a puck moving defenceman of Kaberle's calibre or a top line forward like a Jeff Carter (who the Flyers were willing to give up for Kaberle last year)?
At 4.5 million a year Kaberle is a steal if you ask me, and if he's not in a hurry to get traded I say keep him around for another year and see what happens.
Alex Delo, Mississauga
A: I don’t think they should be in a “hurry” to trade anyone. I think Kaberle is the most marketable commodity they have, partly because of his contract, and this is a team that has to make hard decisions based on maximizing the possible returns for their assets and understanding winning in the short-term just isn’t possible. What I can tell you is that Kaberle isn’t going to become more valuable; in fact, he might be less valuable next summer when he’s in the last year of his contract headed towards unrestricted free agency.
Q: Damien, a friend of mine is upset about the placement of the "C" and the "A" on team sweaters in the NHL. According to him, there is a North American side and a European side that the letters are worn, something I have never been aware of nor would normally care. However his complaint is that, for the raising of the Stanley Cup Champions banner prior to game one of the season for our Leafs, the past Detroit captains had the "C" on the European side, as apparently all Detroit present day alternates and captains do. Also apparently Kovalev did in the All Star Game. He is adamant that this is a slight to our league. I don't know of anyone that has even noticed it. Can you shed any light on this?
Dave Collins, Nestleton, Ont.
A: I’ve noticed it. Can’t say it would upset me. I’ve seen it on both shoulders, more on the left than the right. You’d have to be uber-sensitive to imagine this as a slight to anyone or any league.
Q: Hi Damien,
How is the goalie the Leafs traded for Andrew Raycroft doing this year? Last I heard he was still a better prospect than Justin Pogge, but it looks like Pogge might get his chance at the NHL sooner.
Mark Irish, Oakville
A: Tuukka Rask is now 21 and up with the Bruins on an emergency recall basis. He’s been one of the best goalies in the AHL the past two seasons, and with both Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez set to be free agents this summer, and expensive ones, it’s believed Rask will be one of the two goaltenders in Boston next season. His pro trajectory has been about the same as that of Pogge, although Rask has been superior in the minors. I think its fair to say the Leafs would be a lot happier if they still had both in their system.
Q: Hi Damien,
Being on the west coast I don't get to see as many games I would like but did get to watch the Carolina game. My questions revolve around the play of the Leafs "big" free agent signings this year. Jamal Mayers was on the fourth line and did not play a shift in the third period, Nicklas Hagman a scratch (or injured) and I did not even see Jeff Finger and don't know if he is injured or benched.
My question is, are all these players busts this year or were these guys all brought in to be third and fourth line players? I remember Mayers representing Canada at the World Championships a few years ago and thought he was decent.
Dan Thomas, Vancouver
A: Actually, Mayers played for Team Canada last spring in Quebec City. Have they been busts? Hagman was good early, but has really fallen off. Mayers has played mostly a third and fourth line role but generally has had little impact. Finger is a serviceable defensive defenceman in the NHL - he’s just paid far too much, which distorts his ability. The good news for Leaf fans is that Hagman and Finger cost only money as free agents. Mayers cost the team a third round draft pick.
Q: Hey Damien, huge fan of your columns and I can always tell by the writing that it's you. (it's a good thing) Question about coaches in the NHL. How is it that some teams go through coach after coach, but then teams like Buffalo and Nashville have had the same coach for years? How do they keep the players from not tuning them out? Thanks!
Bill M., Kingston
A: That’s a question a lot of coaches would like to see answered. Personally, I’ve never really bought the concept that players tune out coaches after a while. I’ve always thought that it has more to do with the fact the supply of available and experienced coaches always is greater than the demand, and so it’s easy to change coaches. In situations like Buffalo and Nashville, cost and the economics of the game have something to do with it, but they are certainly the exceptions. Lindy Ruff and Barry Trotz are very qualified, career coaches, and their bosses, Darcy Regier and David Poile, respectively, quite probably understand that getting coaches anywhere as talented as these two men would be next to impossible. So they stick with them, and try to manage the roster around them.
Every Thursday, Damien Cox answers your questions in The Spin, only at thestar.com. Click here to submit a question. **Note: please follow the link above to send a question to Damien. Questions posted in the comments section may not make it to the mailbag. Thanks.**