The debate over whether fighting should be allowed in the NHL has heated up again following the unfortunate incident last week in the fight between the Leafs' Colton Orr and the Habs' George Parros. If the NHL really wants to make the game safer, shouldn't it make the penalty for fighting significantly more harsh? Steve Yzerman, GM of the Lightning, and 9 career fights (according to Hockeyfights.com), wants to make change the penalty for fighting to be a game misconduct. The objective here is not to argue the merits of fighting in the NHL. I am both a fan of it, and believe it is something that makes the NHL unique. Instead, I want to propose a new system by which players are suspended for accumulation of penalty minutes.
In soccer, all leagues and tournaments have rules regarding accumulation of yellow cards. If a player accumulates two yellow cards in a single match (equivalent to one red card), or a certain number of yellow cards over the season (in many cases 5), they are suspended for the team's next match. I propose that hockey adopt a similar rule using penalty minutes. Any player that accumulates 30 minutes worth of penalty minutes over the course of the season will be suspended for their team's game immediately following the game in which they crossed the threshold. 30 penalty minutes is equivalent to 6 fights, roughly the number the OHL uses. This proposal takes the OHL's rule farther.
The accumulation of penalty minutes, rather than the number of fights further penalizes players instigating a fight. Instead of 5 minutes, one instigator adds 17 minutes to a player's ledger. 13 more to go and the player has to sit. It also punishes players who take a lot of minor penalties. A player that repeatedly hooks and holds an opponent will be punished as well. And the punishment directly affects players' paychecks. A defenseman caught flat footed at his own blue line may think twice before hauling down a streaking forward if its going to cost him some money. This leads to more scoring chances, and more scoring, something the NHL is constantly trying to promote, but back to fighting.
The reason this proposal can be effective is because players will be forced to weigh the true cost of the fight, which is 1/6 of the way to a suspension. Staged fights, the most useless of them all, will dramatically decrease. Fights that are a response to an action in the game will decrease as well, but not as much. Designated fighters will become even less useful, and maybe that spot will be given to a player with actual skill.
Let's look at some numbers from the last full season (2011-12). All statistics from ESPN.com. Under this proposal, Zac Rinaldo (9 pts in 66 games), would have been suspended twice, just for his 15 fighting majors, not counting 10 minute misconducts (8), or his minor penalty minutes (60). Even last year's Norris Trophy winner, PK Subban, would have sat a few games to pay for his 47 minor penalties.
Fighting is dangerous. Fighting is also what makes hockey so different than any other sport. Let's not lose fighting altogether.