On Wednesday, the Washington Capitals opened their Stanley Cup title defense with a near-flawless dismantling of the Boston Bruins. Goaltender Braden Holtby was rarely tested, and the Caps high-flying offense picked up where it left off in June, scoring early and often. The only blemish on the 7-0 victory was a literal one; Lars Eller’s head was split open by a Brad Marchand right jab.
If you were just looking at the box score, the bout was between two guys assessed fighting majors, with a two-minute instigator penalty added in, an occurrence that will happen hundreds of times this season. A deeper look uncovers larger problems for the National Hockey League.
First among these problems is the cause of Wednesday’s fight. Obviously, as any fan knows, there are many reasons fights occur. A coach tries to change the momentum. Retribution for a dirty hit. Two guys simply don’t like each other. This fight was none of those. It was the classic, “if you can’t beat them, beat them” fight.
Actually, it was worse than that. Typically a team’s enforcer, to the extent they any longer exist, will invite an opponent to dance, two willing participants dropping their gloves to battle. In this case, Marchand jumped Eller minutes after Eller’s first goal of the season put Washington up by a touchdown.
Marchand had his glove off to grab Eller and landed a couple of blows before Eller even knew there was a fight. Eller, suddenly in the first fight of his career, landed a few punches, before Marchand walloped the side of his head and landed a solid punch to Eller’s face.
Why did Marchand go after Eller? Did Lars curse Brad’s mother? Did he murder a litter of puppies at center ice? Nope. Marchand went after Eller because Eller dared to celebrate his goal in a manner that did not suit the Bruins.
Brad Marchand on why he fought Lars Eller: “His celebration was unnecessary. He took an angle in front of our bench and celebrated in a 7-0 game. So I just let him know.”
— Stephen Whyno (@SWhyno) October 4, 2018
Because he took an angle in front of their bench. Really?
Eller’s goal was the exclamation point on a wonderful celebratory night in the District. The banner went up, the fans rocked, and the Caps power play rolled. Then Marchand and the Bruins got their feelings hurt so he went after Eller.
If we really need to break down Eller’s celebration, it included such awful and outlandish behavior as waving and skating past the Bruins bench on the way to his own.
The idea that it was beatdown-worthy is nonsense. If Marchand wanted to make someone physically answer for being down 7-0, he should have beaten up his own goalie and fellow penalty killers. Instead, Marchand chose to rough up Eller. All because Eller violated “The Code”. Unwritten malarkey that says a team or player must pay for excessive celebration. As if Brad “I like the way my opponents cheeks taste” Marchand is some caretaker of the game that enforces hockey’s etiquette and honor code. As if Brad Marchand is suddenly Emily Post on skates. Forgetting Marchand’s own plethora of past transgressions, what the heck are we even talking about with “The Code”?
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy on Marchand going after Eller: "That's good. He's a proud guy. I think Eller celebrated a little on a 7-0 goal. I think that's his prerogative and Marchy let him know that that's not acceptable. That's that and we move on."
— Stephen Whyno (@SWhyno) October 4, 2018
Instead of licking their wounds, the Bruins tried to mete out some vigilante justice. This action is tiring. It is similar to the divide in baseball. If a hitter watches a homerun too long, or flips his bat too high in celebration, he is likely to get a fastball in his ear. The idea that a player can be seriously injured for celebrating too enthusiastically is as antiquated as it is stupid. At least Major League Baseball has started a campaign to change this mindset.
The NHL might want to consider the same. Too often, players feel they must deliver retribution for being checked cleanly. There was a time when, after getting decked, a player would get up, adjust his bucket, and wait for his opportunity to line up his checker for a hard hit later in the game. Now a scrum breaks out after almost every clean, hard hit.
Fighting used to serve a purpose; it was a deterrent, that in theory, prevented players from taking dangerous liberties. If you slashed Wayne Gretzky, you knew you had to answer to Marty McSorley. In fact, it is unlikely Marchand would have pulled his stunt with Tom Wilson in the Washington lineup. But the game may be evolving past the tough guy behavior that has long been identified with the sport.
A generational, seismic shift may be coming. If the NHL is as serious about eliminating brain injuries, as they claim, it should consider eliminating fighting altogether. Fighting is an electric, exciting part of the game, yet every incident like Wednesday night makes it seem silly and unnecessary.
Repeated head trauma from taking blows in fights can be as damaging as the type inflicted by hits like the ones for which Tom Wilson has been suspended. The possible link between fighting, Chronic Traumatic Encepalopathy, or CTE, and the death of enforcers such as Steve Montador, and Derek Boogaard is too important to easily dismiss.
Like the international game, the NHL could thrive without fighting. “The Code” is outdated. Is it time to bury the code and sanctioned on-ice fighting with it? If eliminating fighting meant ending the childish antics from Brad Marchand and knuckleheads like him, it might be worth it.
By Bryan Hailey