We've seen minor league hockey line brawls, and we've even seen youth hockey line brawls, and while Monday night's fight at Madison Square Garden between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils doesn't exactly fall into the category -- after all, Marek Zidlicky was on the ice -- it's still going to be an incident that shapes the ongoing debate about the role of fighting in hockey.
In a hockey world where more and more people are openly talking about the idea of banning fighting, it wasn't exactly a step in the right direction. It was the kind of premeditated spectacle that the NHL needs to discuss the prevention of.
There's no need to ban fighting altogether. But what happened Monday night? Unnecessary in every sense of the word, and exactly the kind of truculence the NHL would love to rid itself of, if given the opportunity.
Devils coach Pete DeBoer bears the brunt of the blame. It was his decision to start a line of, well, fighters. Did he expect to see Marian Gaborik or Derek Stepan hop the boards on the other side?
What happened? Given the personnel on the ice, I'm sure no one was surprised.
I'm not against fighting. Actually, I think it serves an important purpose.
Fighting protects star players from undue abuse. It forces dirty players to either stand up for themselves after a dirty play, or it forces them to look like gutless turtles when they refuse to stand up for themselves.
While it's understandable that two teams that don't like each other will have incidents that carry over from one game to another, DeBoer's decision to start a veritable goon squad up front touched off a nationally-televised gong show.
John Tortorella is somewhat culpable, but like I already said, what choice did he have? Sending guys like Gaborik or Stepan out there to start the game might send a message that he doesn't want to partake in whatever DeBoer had planned, but it also risks his most important skill guys to something they don't need to be exposed to.
This is exactly what the NHL wants to prevent. Not because 18,000-plus fans didn't enjoy it. Not because the NBC Sports Network audience largely didn't enjoy it. Not because the players didn't enjoy it.
In this era of increased player safety, the NHL can ill afford to ignore the opportunity to take another step toward that goal. It isn't the case now, but you can bet that if Gary Bettman and his people get their way, the day will come where players who engage in obviously premeditated fights -- Monday clearly applies -- are subjected to ejections and possible suspensions once they are repeat offenders of the rule.
It doesn't eliminate fighting. Player X can still be asked to answer for his illegal hit on Team B's best player. Or, as we see quite often in this league, Player X can be asked to answer for an absolutely clean hit on Team B's best player. But Player Y doesn't get to break up a (to that point) cleanly-played game by fighting Player Z's designated fighter, just for kicks. There's no need for it when we're supposed to be worried about player safety.
Honestly, coaches who decide to start a line of Cam Janssen, Eric Boulton, and Ryan Carter against a longtime rival should probably face similar punishment. But that's almost too arbitrary.
Visuals like what we saw Monday might be cool, but the sport is trying to evolve. Monday doesn't move us in that direction.