By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The NHL has not expressly forbidden fighting on its ice. But, for all intents and purposes, it essentially has put an expiration date on old-fashioned on-ice fistfights.

The latest example of this trend came Tuesday night in Columbus, late in the first period. Blue Jackets forward Josh Anderson delivered a post-whistle shove to the back of Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid. As tends to be the case in these types of confrontations, tempers flared.

Both of these fellas are big boys. McQuaid stands at 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds, while the 22-year-old Anderson is 6-foot-3 and 221 pounds.

The two players mutually dropped their gloves and squared off to fight in what would qualify as an NHL heavyweight bout. Anderson’s held his own in his two fights at the NHL level, and has him with 36 fights to his name since his days in the OHL. McQuaid has 45 fights to his name in the NHL, plus 46 more in the AHL, juniors and NHL preseason.

These two guys knew what they were doing. And they were both willing combatants. Yet the linesman near the play worked very quickly to get between the two and prevent a fight from ever taking place.

Pete Blackburn posted the scene in one tidy GIF:

Instead of fighting majors, both players were issued roughing minors, sent to the box for two minutes each. Instead of a fight (which the majority of the crowd likely would have gleefully watched), the game went to 4-on-4 hockey for two minutes.

It was just the continuation of efforts by the league to curb fighting while carefully avoiding the scrutiny that would come with an outright ban. Look at the timeline:

June 2013: NHL, NHLPA agree to terms that require all new players entering the NHL to wear a visor.

September 2013: Fighters learn that they’ll now be penalized if they remove their helmets before a fight.

With this new order successfully established, add this one to the mix:

July 2016: AHL announces that any player engaged in a fight immediately after a faceoff (in a “staged” fight) will be ejected from the game. Additionally, any player who records 10 fighting majors in a season will be issued a one-game suspension. A one-game suspension will be issued for any fighting major recorded after the 10th, while a two-game suspension will be issued for every fighting major recorded after the 13th.

(For some perspective on this, Shawn Thornton once recorded 26 fights in an AHL season. Derek Boogaard had a 25-fight season in the AHL and another 22-fight season. Zac Rinaldo had 28 fights in the 2010-11 AHL season. From 2005-08, Brandon Prust fought 30, 23 and 21 times per season in the AHL. You get the idea; capping fights at 10 is not an insignificant rule change.)

These developments took place as the league came under scrutiny for its poor handling of concussions and brain trauma over the years, in the wake of the deaths of Bob Probert, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and Derek Boogaard. With the threat of lawsuits coming, the NHL knew it had to do something to show it was working to limit gratuitous instances of head contact. Fighting seemed to be the most logical spot.

But declaring an outright ban on fighting in hockey would turn away many of the game’s old-school fans. And in a sport that isn’t quite as popular as football, basketball and baseball, the NHL can hardly afford to lose any fans for any reason.

So instead, this is what we’re left with. Fighting is dying a slow death, right before our eyes.

And hey, maybe it is for the best. For all the valid positives that can be expounded on what fighting can do to inspire teammates and “police the game” from predatory hits, there is still the Neanderthalic picture of two men bashing in each other’s heads, a scene that flies in the face of all of the advances of modern neuroscience.

It is, frankly, a debate that has raged on for decades, and one with merits on both sides. Yet while some hockey fans bemoan the potential death of fighting in hockey, they may be overlooking the reality that it’s already well on its way out of the game.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

Comments (5)
  1. Mark Patrick says:

    And that is one thing that is wrong with the No Hit League. Get rid of the instigater rule and let the players take care of the low life’s that always want to give a cheap shot after the play.

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