- - Wednesday, April 17, 2019

I’m not a big fan of fighting, not on street corners, in bars, on pay-per-view, or in hockey. But, yeah, I’ll watch pro athletes exchange blows on occasion (while ignoring the gratuitous videos of random brawls between random people).

My affection for boxing has waned over the years, and mixed martial arts never completely grabbed me. However, I do understand that tempers can flare and emotions can run hot in the heat of sports where fighting isn’t the be-all and end-all.

In hockey, it’s a given, a longstanding tradition that players will at times drop their gloves and throw punches.

True confession: In my lifetime, I have visited hockeyfights.com and scrolled through some of the featured bouts. Something about the fact that guys are throwing haymakers, keeping their balance, and trying to defend themselves on ice skates — ICE SKATES! — makes hockey fisticuffs a different, more-intriguing breed.

(P.S.: The website asks visitors to declare the winner. Amazingly, in Monday’s bout between Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov, four jokers called the beatdown a draw. Two other knuckleheads voted for the guy who got knocked the bleep out!)

There’s no debating who won that clash. But the sight of Ovechkin — 33 years old and 235 pounds — pummeling the face of Svechnikov — 19 years old and 195 pounds — has re-ignited the timeworn discussion on fighting and its place in the sport.

The headline over a column in a national publication read: “Fighting in the NHL is brutish and outdated and needs to be banned.” A columnist in Raleigh, North Carolina, came to the same conclusion: “It’s time to end fighting in hockey.”

If the league opts to eliminate the practice, fine. But Monday night’s main event shouldn’t be the deciding factor. That would be a classic overreaction to an unfortunate set of circumstances, a knee-jerk decision fueled by optics, not a clear-headed move based on facts.

Cries to end fisticuffs wouldn’t be nearly as loud — if they arose at all — if Svechnikov was 10 years older, 30 pounds heavier and wasn’t dropped like a bad habit. It looks like he was already knocked out by a right cross when his head hit the ice, worsening his condition.

Afterward, Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour told reporters that seeing Svechnikov’s injury “makes you sick. I’m still sick to my stomach about it.” Along with other critics, he seemed to blame Ovi for engaging with a player who’s much younger and lighter.

To those with similar viewpoints, I have a simple retort: Svechnikov’s age and weight are irrelevant in this case.

He appeared to be a willing combatant, even the instigator, according to Ovi. The norms were established and proper protocol was followed before the gloves came off. At that point, Svechnikov was just another NHL player, though a foolish one for choosing a heavyweight opponent for his first dance partner.

Sure, Ovechkin could’ve turned down the invitation. With only four fights in his NHL career, it’s likely that he’s skated away more than a few times. By the way, that’s the smart move for prolific scorers, lest they risk broken hands or too much valuable time in the penalty box.

But Ovi wasn’t obligated to give the disrespectful kid a break. On the contrary, some argue that a lesson needed to be delivered. Svechnikov had no business poking at the Great Eight like that, and now he’s learned the hard way.

Don’t blame Ovechkin for the teenager’s brash and bold boneheadedness.

This wasn’t a mugging. Nary a sucker punch was thrown. It wasn’t one player flying across the ice for a blindside hit on an unsuspecting foe.

This was squaring off, looking the other man in the eye, signaling consent, and seeing what happens. Had the youngster dropped the veteran, the conversation would be totally different, but this fact would remain unchanged:

Fights happen and sometimes players get hurt.

But let’s not get carried away. The tradition has been fading for years. According to TSN, there were only 0.2 fights per NHL game this season. Three decades ago, the number was 1.3 fights per game. Fighting is down 68% compared to 10 seasons ago.

The culture has changed organically without the league issuing an outright ban.

Should the NHL take that final step, or continue to leave matters to the players? I don’t see anything wrong with either answer, though it wouldn’t surprise me if commissioner Gary Bettman wants to keep the option as a bone for diehard, old-school fans.

But until further notice, players should be careful in whom they ask to dance.

And be ready to suffer the consequences.

⦁ Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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