Jack Dempsey/Associated Press file photo
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press file photo
DETROIT – Wanna fight?
If you’re an NHL player, you probably can find somebody to drop the gloves.
A lockout-delayed and shortened season has created a spike in fights around the league, just as it did the last time labor woes led to a 48-game season.
There were 58 fights through the first 87 games this year, and following play Tuesday night, an increase from 39 after the same number of games last season, according to STATS. During the 1994-95 season, there were 83 fights over the first 87 games of that lockout-shortened slate, a jump from 58 during the same stretch from the previous season.
“Obviously, you have a situation where the players are being thrown into the immediate intensity of a shortened season, and that certainly may play a role,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote Thursday in an email to The Associated Press. “We monitor these things as well, and the number of fighting majors have decreased significantly and begun to normalize over the last week. I expect that will continue over the balance of the season.”
There were, in fact, fewer fighting penalties than games Monday for the first time since the season started with 12 fights in 13 games. And on Wednesday, there were six fights in four games.
But there were a season-high 16 fights in 10 games Tuesday, when Detroit Red Wings forward Jordin Tootoo fought two different players in the opening period against the Dallas Stars.
Tootoo has been a part of two of the four fights that have started within the first three seconds of a game this season. When the gloves drop soon after the puck does, the fights seem orchestrated by World Wrestling Entertainment decision-makers.
“For me personally, nothing is staged,” Tootoo said. “It’s spontaneous. It’s all about the eye contact. You kind of say, ‘Let’s do it,’ without saying a word.”
Some players say they’re unleashing pent-up energy stored up during the four-month lockout.
Others want to give fans what they seem to want.
One 25-year-old player acknowledges he’s fighting for his job. Nashville Predators forward Richard Clune has been trying to make it back in the NHL since playing in 14 games with the Los Angeles Kings three years ago. He was in three fights in his first five games.
Clune didn’t play in Nashville’s opener when star defenseman Shea Weber got into a rare fight with Columbus forward Jared Boll, the first NHL player to five fights this season. Clune, perhaps not coincidently, was in the lineup for the next game and tried to make his presence felt right away by getting penalized for boarding in the opening minutes.
“I play hard and get in the other team’s faces, and sometimes it results in dropping the gloves,” Clune said in a telephone interview before playing on the road against the Kings.
The NHL struggles with its public stance toward fighting.
The league doesn’t want to embrace or encourage the most violent part of its fast-paced, heavy-hitting game during a concussion crisis in sports and with some of its former enforcers dying young and unexpectedly in 2011.
And yet fans seem to stand and cheer each time gloves drop and fists fly.
Red Wings senior vice president Jim Devellano, who has four decades of NHL front-office experience and is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, said he used to be among the majority of people within the game that accept fighting as simply being a part of the sport.
“I’ve changed 100 percent, and I’m now in the minority because I personally could do without fighting,” Devellano said. “I don’t think it brings anything to the game, and there’s a lot of violence in society that we have to read about all the time.
“I changed my opinion when Scotty Bowman, who wasn’t big on fighting, was our coach, and I saw how beautiful the game can be when you let the talent and the speed of the game take over. I’m not a crusader to stop fighting, but when I’ve shared my opinion with hockey people, they’re not really happy with what I say.”
Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlye, who has two players – Mike Brown and Colton Orr – among the league leaders in fights – said “fisticuffs” are a part of the game that are here to stay.
“I just think it’s a fact of life in the NHL that if you’re going to go out there and you’re going to run around, it’s going to force confrontation,” Carlye said. “Sometimes people try to take advantage of your more skilled players, and you have that deterrent.”
Getting players injured, though, might deter teams from wanting key players to mix it up.
New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan will be out 10 to 14 days after hurting his left shoulder Tuesday night when a scuffle with Max Talbot ended with the Philadelphia Flyers forward tugging Callahan’s arm and dragging him down.
“Maybe we’ve been out so long and everyone is on edge,” N.Y. Rangers forward Mike Rupp said as an explanation.
Washington’s Jason Chimera had another theory related to the lockout that shortened the 82-game season and hit players in their pocket books.
“Maybe they’re mad they missed half a year’s paycheck,” Chimera said.
Boll suggested the spike in fights is a result of players being excited to be back on the ice. He also pointed to a theory that can be seen, heard and felt in arenas throughout North America.
“Definitely, if you’re the home team you want to get the crowd into it,” Boll said. “It’s fun. That’s what guys do. That’s why guys play is to compete and do their job.
“So far it seems like it’s been an exciting start to the season. Maybe we’re just trying to get the fans back in it.”
AP Sports Writers Ira Podell, Dave Campbell and AP freelance Ian Harrison and Jess Myers contributed to this report.
Jim Mone/Associated Press file photo
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press file photo