Whenever NHL commissioner Gary Bettman speaks about fighting, we have that uncomfortable moment that you see in the movies sometimes: When the protagonist suddenly and solemnly realizes that "the enemy ... of my enemy ... is my friend?!"
Bettman can be criticized for, oh, several thousand decisions and remarks and misguided beliefs about what's right for the League. But his stance on fighting has been refreshingly consistent and contrarian to the mainstream: It's a part of hockey, and it's not going anywhere.
He says this because it's what the strong majority of the NHL's management and talent believe; he says this because a similar percentage of the League's paying customers believe it to; and, although you never can tell, we imagine he says it because he actually does see virtue in flying fists.
The commissioner took the message to ESPN2's First Take yesterday, saying that the future of fighting will not involve an outright ban.
He also said this, which when given the right mood and vocal inflection, might as well be poetry for pugilism aficionados:
"A lot of people who aren't fans of the game don't understand that [fighting] gets a disproportionate amount of attention. It isn't what the game is all about. ... The role of fighting in the game at our level is something that I think anybody who follows the game understands."
Bingo. That's why it's both baffling and frustrating to read national polls of non-hockey fans condemning fighting, because they're non-hockey fans. Fighting isn't the problem, hockey is; their opinions matter about as much as a vegan critiquing the new bacon cheeseburger at Wendy's.
Of course, Gary's regime hasn't completely had fighting's back in this battle against the puritans and the killjoys. The instigator penalty thrives, and the League has backed down on what some label the "circus" stuff like fights at the end of the game and, most recently, "staged fights" off the face-off.
One also assumes that, down the road, there will also be penalties for failing to keep one's helmet on during a fight as part of Bettman's "rules of engagement" refinement.
So enjoy fights like this one between heavyweights Jody Shelley of the San Jose Sharks and Brian McGrattan of the Phoenix Coyotes while you can -- off the draw, helmet flying off and as staged as a "Noises Off" revival. You'll want to tell a young fan how it used to be about 10 years from now (while you also explain what a "Darren Pang" is, exactly):