The Olympic hockey games have been uniformly thrilling, to purists and casual fans alike. But there are murmurs, surely music to Gary Bettman's ears, that the lack of fighting is what's making the games so great.
It's not a chorus yet, but certainly an undercurrent. Voices that say the main reason the play has been so full-throttle, end-to-end, is because there's no fighting in the Olympics. It's coming from fans and media alike.
Does anybody look at a game like (Team USA's 5-3 victory against Canada Sunday) and ask why fighting is necessary in the NHL?
There are blood feuds between bitter rivals without the stupid, goon-it-up fights as a distraction.
The argument goes like this: without fighting, there's no need for the enforcers who can barely skate, but get 10-15 minutes of ice time anyway. There's no need for a pure checking line at all, which slows down the pace of the game every four shifts. Players aren't kept in check by the threat of a goon, and can play as physically as possible. And there's no breaks in the action for the actual fights, which from the dropping of gloves to cleanup is a good five minutes gone.
It sounds convincing, at first blush. Ovechkin's clean-but-barely hit on Jagr would have caused an arms race of dirty hits and fights, wiping out the rest of the game's flow. Ole Kristian Tollefsen making Lubos Bartecko bleed like a stuck pig would have called for instant retaliation.
Hockey diehards hate this. The casual fan coming in and telling them what should change in the NHL, and Bettman acquiescing in a failed attempt to grow the sport. We've seen it with ties, with the neutral zone trap, with the two line pass. It usually plays out like this:
Casual fan: "Hey, if you changed this, I would probably watch hockey.
NHL: *Changes 75-year-old rule*
Casual fan: *Doesn't watch hockey anyway*
But — and Bettman needs this on a plaque in his office — fighting is not the problem. The word that's been thrown around in regards to the excellent tournament is "flow." And there are two huge reasons for the flow.
First: minimal commercial breaks. It makes for a wonderful viewing experience, to be able to get sucked in by a great play, and not have your attention broken by a TV timeout. My father, who has never watched an NHL game in his life on television, got hooked by the third period of Sunday's game. Wednesday, we watched US-Switzerland together. And by his own accord, he watched Canada-Russia. I was shocked.
It's not just better for viewers, but for the players as well. It's 20 straight minutes out there, uninterrupted except for natural whistles. It keeps them on their toes, their adrenaline flowing, and there's no chance for a lull in play.
This could never happen in the NHL. Financially, it couldn't survive without commercial breaks. That's one thing soccer has over North American sports, but, whether for reasons cultural or economic, putting ads on jerseys will never replace commercials.
Accepting that, there's a second reason the flow of the games has been so excellent, and this one, the NHL could actually do something about.
The quality of players is simply better. Look at the rosters of the top teams in the Olympics. Not a third- or fourth-liner among them. No guys on the team just for the PK, or to neutralize the opponent's first line. These teams are stronger, faster and generally more skilled than any NHL team.
Think about Canada-Russia. Crosby's line gets a scoring chance, which is saved, then Malkin's line takes it down the ice full speed for a counter-attack. Both teams change, and it's the Getzlaf and Datsyuk lines doing the same thing. Repeat ad nauseum.
Obviously, you can't replicate this level of skill in an NHL game. But you can do something to get closer.
So, Gary Bettman, the ratings success of hockey at the Olympics doesn't make a case to eliminate fighting. If anything, it makes a case for contraction.