Mike Milbury acting as an advocate for the abolishment of fighting in the NHL might sound as likely as Tommy Lasorda coming out against cursing.
The ultra-aggressive Boston Bruins defenseman once known as “Mad Mike” had more than 1,500-penalty minutes in a 12-year playing career that ended in the late ‘80s. That stat was padded by participating in more than 70 on-ice brawls – not counting the most famous time when he went into stands to smack a defiant fan with a shoe.
But here’s the new punchline: The 62-year-old NBC Sports Network NHL analyst may be just the right voice at the right time in the sports’ evolution to start a dialogue of change.
It came on opening night of the NHL season, just before the Kings were to take on San Jose on Wednesday. On the “NHL Live” set, Milbury was asked if it was a telling sign that the rosters of teams these days that are consistently winning — like the Kings – are filled less and less with so-called enforcers.
“It’s telling me that it’s time to get rid of fighting,” Milbury said. “It’s telling me that it’s over. As much as I liked to get into a scrap in my day, too many issues here now involving concussions … let’s grow up and get rid of it.”
More stories are coming out about former NHL players having the same kind of post-concussions syndrome issues that medical professionals see with NFL retirees. A new book out this week by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times writer John Branch called “Boy Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard,” sheds more light on how the mental state of the former New York Rangers star deteriorated by head trauma, leading to his tragic death at age 28 in 2011.
If Milbury, also a former NHL head coach and general manager, feels strong enough to change his attitude about altercations, maybe it’s worth challenging him more to elaborate on it:
Q: What prompted you to use your TV position to take a stand on anti-fighting in the NHL at this point, even as there have been writers and others in the league perhaps saying this for some time now?
A: It’s been evolving. From time to time, I’ve had the conversation with my old boss (Hockey Hall of Famer and Boston Bruins president and GM) Harry Sinden, and I think we both have agreed that it’s not a necessary part of the game.
You hear a lot of comments about how fighting is a way of policing the game – which I’ve described in the past as logical hogwash. I think maybe many do enjoy the spontaneity of a fight as a way of getting immediate justice. But slowly and surely, it’s been eliminated as a tactic
Back when the big, bad Flyers won (the Broad Street Bullies of the early 1970s), intimidating teams physically with their fighting, the league took steps appropriately to curb that. And since that time it’s been slowly diminishing. The recent difficulty of the enforcer to find work in the league has emphasized that.
In my era, we signed up for broken bones, bad knees and lacerations of any type. I don’t think any of us were really signing up to be mentally incapacitated in some form or another for the rest of our lives. Maybe you heard about that in boxing, but not in hockey. The overwhelming scare about concussions in our sport, and in sports in general, makes it a logical conclusion that if the behavior can be modified to protect against concussions, then we should absolutely find a way. The league has done that with cracking down on hits from behind, head shots, and a players safety committee that reviews this all the time. They’re doing the best they can to eliminate it. But they have only been nibbling at the fighting issue.
Q: And you can speak first-hand about how fighting can affect one’s health after the game?
A: I’ve experienced it enough fighting myself. I’ve been TKO’d before and missed games because I’ve been dizzy, lost in space, tired. I just can’t imagine that being somebody’s condition for most of the days of the rest of their lives. I mean, I’ve been out as a player since 1987 and fortunately had any issues – although some may disagree (laughing).
I’ve just had foot surgery. Knee replacement. Several operations on my other knee. Back surgery. I’m an orthopedic mess. The fact I can still count and put a sentence together, sure, I feel fortunate. No one was worried about all that when we played. We saw the older players hobble around, but we were chasing the dream, chasing glory and we felt it was worth that price. But I’m an old guy now. I have a little more perspective.
Q: So if there is medical data shows that concussions are up and there are serious long-term effects, whether or not it’s from fighting, do you think that’s enough of a reason to curb fighting? Or because there’s also the new analytic data teams are using now, the new kind of “Moneypuck” stuff, that re-enforces how enforcers aren’t as win-effective for teams, is that a bigger game-changer that leads to fighting happening less and less?
A: I think the data on winning is way more important to general managers’ thinking than the date on concussions. But be that as it may, it’s still an evolution. We’ve seen it more and more how a fourth-line guy who is a fighter doesn’t get as much ice time anymore especially in the playoffs. Fighting in the playoffs is dramatically different from years ago. The more successful teams jumped out in front of this. There’s more than one way to intimidate an opponent these days. Chicago does it with speed and puck possession. So does L.A. There was a Minnesota-Colorado game already (a 5-0 Wild win) that was about as intimidating as a team can be (outshooting the Avalanche 48-16, and winning faceoffs, 32-23, despite having fewer hits and only 12 penalty minutes). That’s all about relentless skating pressure and worth ethic. Those are admirable qualities and far more so than laying down your stick and trying to pummel somebody.
Q: When you saw the Kings’ opener against the Sharks, and Kyle Clifford got into a scrap in the first period against Mike Brown, maybe you heard broadcaster Dave Strader say about how “spontaneous fights like the one we just saw still have a place in the game,” and analyst Brian Engbloom concurred. How is that different from what you might have been addressing?
A: It’s drastically different. The ‘staged fight’ that most disagree with are those that some say ‘clears the air.’ I’m saying no fighting is worth the risk to a guy’s health, whether it’s spontaneous or staged. I’m just saying given from what I hear about players suffering long-term effects from concussions, fighting or not, it’s worth to me to make a change.
Q: Does the fact you have a teen-aged son playing hockey add to your concerns about how fighting may be part of the game?
A: Yeah, I mean, they really don’t fight at any of these (youth and junior) levels anymore. I see the kids get excited about a fight during the course of a (NHL) game and I like to think we talk more about the skill sets of (the Kings’ Anze) Kopitar or (Boston’s Patrice) Bergeron more often. They’re like the rest of the male population that get excited when guys go at it and there’s vigilante justice. There’s this sense of good versus evil and righting a wrong.
(Former Boston enforcer and current Florida player) Shawn Thornton is a noble player (906 penalty minutes in 559 games coming into his 12th NHL season) trying to take people to task on bad hits. I get that. But there’s a different way to do it. First of all, if it was a bad hit, it should have been penalized. Secondly, if you want to get even you can beat the guy on the scoreboard, use your wheels to get there, make legal contact. You can relentlessly skate and disrupt their plays and get to the puck and make them turn it over and go the other way. That’s the name of the game anyway. Ultimately what you get out of fighting is some form of intimidation or some satisfaction of getting even. The satisfaction of getting even is worth a pile of poop (laughing). That’s nothing. The most guys at this level now know they can get past that. If someone drops the gloves on them and they don’t want to fight, they don’t have to.
Q: But you had called out players in the past about the “pansification” of the NHL, guys who didn’t want to retaliate, is that what you were talking about?
A: As long as fighting has been part of the game, I always took umbrage with guys who took borderline hits and then dropped the gloves. When you play on the edge, like a Kopitar, you play with such skill and efficiency and don’t have any need for any of that other stuff, and then somebody tries to take a run at you, another guy comes along (and makes a hit), you can understand the thinking there.
But I didn’t like it when a guy like (Pittsburgh’s) Brooks Orpik puts a hit on (Boston’s) Loui Eriksson (last December, causing Eriksson to have a major concussion), a hit that was borderline legal, it got Thornton in trouble and got him suspended (15 games for an “act of retribution” trying to get Orpik to fight him). That bothers me. My point is when fighting leaves the game, and it surely will at some point or another, there will be plays like that recognized as more dangerous and the penalties will become more severe.
Q: How do you look at a website out there like HockeyFights.com, which celebrates the game’s fight history, and lets fans vote on who won head-to-head fights in a game? Is that something that needs to exist still?
A: Ultimately, I think it’s going to be relic. Fighting will be much less of a tactic, if it even is a tactic now. There are a lot of other websites you can go to, too, that show incredible saves, incredible passes, even incredible hits. There’s an element that the fans of the game enjoy, and I get it, I’m not trying to be a crusader here, but I understand why they like it. And I like it for the same reasons. But the underlying reason for my change in thinking on this is simply that fighting causes concussions, and concussions can cause long-term injury to players’ brains that impact them for the rest of their lives. Make contact as safe as possible.
Q: How do you assess the current rules in place about fighting? There was one introduced last year that prevents a player involved in a fight from taking off his helmet. Doesn’t that send a mixed message – it’s OK to fight, just don’t take off your helmet so you’ll supposedly be safer?
A: It says a lot of things. Hitting a guy when he has his helmet on is just as likely to hurt your hand as it is to hurt his head. I don’t want to play doctor here, but the way it’s been explained to me, the reverberation of your brain inside your skull is caused by a torquing motion. So no amount of helmet padding will eliminate that possibility. There are guys out there trying to make a buck off new helmets that are safer. The fact of the matter is you hit someone on the jaw and snap his neck, that will cause a reaction that could bruise your brain.
We have rules that police against people taking cheap shots and hitting from behind, against tripping and high sticking. And if we have to reinforce those rules or increase penalties because we stop fighting and people are trying to get away with things, then so be it. We have a pretty good rulebook that punishes a lot of sins. If we have to go through a growth period where people have to deal with the fact they can’t fight, then so be it. But the upside of player safety is much more important.
Q: Who have you seen suffer the most from concussions that has affected you? Do you know players who have had such mental troubles and have committed suicide because of their concussions that just make you feel maybe lucky that it hasn’t happened to you?
A: I think of Scott Parker from Colorado. He has trouble getting out of bed (six years after leaving the game). Has to live with the lights off all the time. That really shook me when I heard that. There’s been documented issues with Marc Savard, Keith Primeau,
Eric Lindros leaving the game early.
I do feel fortunate I’m not having any of these issues. I don’t mind people questioning me my stance on this now, either. Consistency is great, but if you’re consistent in the face of new information and data that suggests you were wrong or you should change, then you should be intelligent enough to make that adjustment. I’m not going to stay on the soap box on this forever, but I think I made my point fairly clearly and I hope everyone gets it. The cost of entertainment in this instance has become too high.