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Steve Yzerman is Allowed to Change His Mind on Fighting

Since coming out in favor of stricter punishment for fighting in the NHL, Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has been criticized heavily for apparent hypocrisy, considering his long, successful career was in part possible due to the enforcers he played with.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In a Darren Dreger piece from October 2nd, Steve Yzerman is quoted as one of several NHL executives in favor of instituting a game misconduct penalty for any players who engage in a fight. This would be a first step towards eliminating fighting from the game altogether, and his unexpected and unpopular opinion has caused considerable backlash both among NHL fans and media personalities. Here's Yzerman's exact quote:

"Yes, I believe a player should get a game misconduct for fighting," Yzerman told The Dreger Report. "We penalize and suspend players for making contact with the head while checking, in an effort to reduce head injuries, yet we still allow fighting.

"We're stuck in the middle and need to decide what kind of sport do we want to be. Either anything goes and we accept the consequences, or take the next step and eliminate fighting."

Yzerman's point here is fairly simple -- while body checks are dangerous and can result in devastating head injuries, they shouldn't be the only focal point in making the game safer. Checks to the head, while problematic, are not the only way in which a player can receive a serious injury but they're the only area of the game the Department of Player Safety has zeroed in on via rules changes in the past few seasons.

For some, Yzerman's view is troubling, especially coming from a former player who enjoyed a 20+ year career in the NHL in part due to the play of some of his teammates like Darren McCarty and Bob Probert, career enforcers in the NHL who many argue "kept him safe" on the ice.

Ignoring the obvious impossibility of proving that assertion, Yzerman is receiving criticism now for changing his tune on fighting. Greg Wyshynski, propietar of the very popular Puck Daddy blog on Yahoo! and co-host of the Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast, is just the latest member of the media to jump on Yzerman for this:

One obvious problem with Wyshynski's outrage is that Yzerman didn't write the piece in question and therefore likely had very little control over which of his opinions were included in the final publicized version. It's quite possible Yzerman acknowledges the role fighting played during his career but has decided, after careful consideration of all the facts, to change his position. But it makes no sense for Dreger to include any of that in the piece if it's said or thought, because it makes his article less provocative.

Wyshinski then boils down his issue with Yzerman quite clearly into one main point:

Again, let's ignore the unprovable assertion Wyshnski presents as absolute truth that fighting kept Yzerman safe when he played in the NHL (and the further suggestion the NHL would degrade into a lawless hellscape of swordfighting outlaws without fighting to keep everyone in line). Wyshynski's argument relies on the assumption that fighting actually does something to help police the game, but the burden of proof lies with the "fightning keeps the game safe" crowd to prove that statement, and as of now, they can do so only anecdotally. It's possible (likely even), that a big reason Yzerman has flipped on this issue is due to events that have transpired regarding career enforcers in the NHL since his own retirement from the game, including some former players who were friends and teammates.

CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is one of the most serious medical concerns for NHL players, especially those who receive multiple concussions and/or repeated blows to the head over the course of their careers. From the Wikipedia page on CTE:

CTE is a progressive degenerative disease, which can only be definitively diagnosed postmortem in individuals with a history of multiple concussions and other forms of head injury. The disease was previously called dementia pugilistica (DP), as it was initially found in those with a history of boxing. CTE has been most commonly found in professional athletes participating in American football, ice hockey, professional wrestling and other contact sports who have experienced repetitive brain trauma. It has also been found in soldiers exposed to a blast or a concussive injury,[1] in both cases resulting in characteristic degeneration of brain tissue and the accumulation of tau protein. Individuals with CTE may show symptoms of dementia, such as memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression, which generally appear years or many decades after the trauma.

The first NHL player wasn't diagnosed with CTE until 2009, and since then the league has had to deal with fallout from other players whose lives were seriously damaged by prolonged careers spent fighting on the ice. There is evidence to suggest that fighting can and does lead to serious medical problems as a result of CTE, including depression, a tendency towards addicition, and anxiety.

One of Wyshynski's biggest issues with Yzerman's stance is the timing of it, claiming it is 'convenient' for Yzerman to come out against fighting well after his retirement. An underlying assumption of this claim is that the owners and league want to eliminate fighting for business reasons, and thus Yzerman's change of heart must be coming from on high. While there may be some owners who who are against fighting because it might someday cause lowered ticket sales or open the league up to lawsuits, there are business reasons to keep it, too. The big one is that fighting sells tickets now and we've seen no real indication that that's lessening. It's also a hell of a lot cheaper to pay Brian McGrattan $750K than to pay Mikhail Grabovski $3M. Consider the current Lightning roster: even Brett Connolly would make more in the NHL than an enforcer generally does. On a cost-benefit analysis, we ought to include that cost. Is it really any easier to construct a roster of exclusively skill players under a salary cap than it is to "make room" for an enforcer?

Let's consider Yzerman's current day job before we allege hypocrisy -- the roster he has constructed in Tampa Bay is one centered on creating a team camaraderie through toughness and, occasionally, fighting. BJ Crombeen was tied for the league lead in fighting majors last season with 13, and he was signed to a 2-year extension in April.

Jon Cooper, the coach handpicked by Yzerman to coach the Lightning and before that, their top affiliate, is a coach with a decidedly more positive opinion towards fighting than his predecessor, Guy Boucher. Cooper's AHL squads have been littered with players willing to drop the gloves -- his 2012-2013 Syracuse Crunch squad had the 3rd most penalty minutes in the league, as did his Calder Cup winning, 28-game-win-streak-having 2011-2012 Norfolk Admirals squad. Players like Radko Gudas, also recently re-signed and one of the first of Cooper's players to come with him to the NHL, would be rendered highly ineffective in an NHL without fighting.

Yzerman's position then is far from convenient. His coach -- who is quoted as wanting to play a mix of 70s Flyers and 80s Oilers hockey -- and several key pieces of his roster would have to go if he got is wish and fighting is eventually banned in the NHL.

So ask yourself, what's more likely? That Yzerman has had time to reflect on his own career and some of the scientific research that has only recently come to light, time to judge the value of fighting in the NHL and found it something he feels should be removed from the game -- or, he's a corporate shill who now only serves the will of the league and the owners since he took off his sweater and replaced it with a suit?