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Fighting is a staple of the NHL, but does the sport need its guilty pleasure?

For The Win logo For The Win 4/16/2019 Michelle R. Martinelli
Associated Press © Associated Press Associated Press

We don't know, exactly, what led to the fight between Alex Ovechkin and Andrei Svechnikov in Monday's Stanley Cup Playoff game between the Washington Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes.

It looked a lot like most NHL fights do these days: Two players became annoyed with each other on the ice - angst stemming from previous games. They got more physical with slashes and jabs ensuing. Words were exchanged. Gloves dropped.

What we do know is that the fight ended badly for Svechnikov, as he was knocked out after a few punches. As Ovechkin skated toward the penalty box, Svechnikov struggled to get up on his own, didn't return to the game and was eventually taken to the hospital for evaluation. Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour told reporters that the rookie forward is in the concussion protocol and likely won't play in Game 4.

Carolina went on to win the game, 5-0, but still trails in the series, 2-1.

Predictably, the fight - and not necessarily the Hurricanes stunningly thorough victory - got much of the post-game attention, and Brind'Amour expressed his displeasure with how it went down.

And so here we are, trying to figure out the role of fighting in the NHL - even though it has dropped drastically. Playoff intensity tends to breed more fisticuffs, and we're left reckoning with the validity of fighting in this sport. And it remains complicated.

There's no question that fighting is still a deeply embedded element of hockey, but also one that doesn't serve the same purposes as it once did.

The two have been linked for almost a century, and in 1922, the NHL recognized it as part of the game - albeit by making it a five-minute major penalty. That certainly didn't deter anyone from throwing their gloves down.

For decades, players turned to fighting as a method for players to police the game in ways the officials wouldn't. Mess with a team's stars, its top scorers, its captain or goaltender and it was all but guaranteed the tough-guy enforcers - who were more like wrecking balls on ice and didn't always possess much skill in other areas of the game - would come for you. That's what those guys did, it's why they were on NHL rosters and they delivered thrilling yet dangerous highlights to games.

But things have changed, and enforcers are all but extinct. It's no longer a plus if your tough guy brings other skills to the table; it's essential.

Hockey has shifted with a greater emphasis on skating and stick handling and offense with fewer fights. This year, the league had 226 fights total in the regular season; a decade ago, the three teams with the most fights in the league (Ducks, Flyers and Oilers) combined for 225. The decrease has been drastic.

Not only will refs not let things escalate into full-on brawls anymore - wow, were there some wild ones - but plenty of players recognize their hands are more valuable to their teams if they aren't bloodied or broken. Plus, there is more awareness about the dangers of head injuries, concussions and CTE.

Now when fights actually do happen, they're often agreed upon by both participants and are an attempt to shift the momentum in one team's favor - rather than a way to serve as perceived justice.

"One of the primary justifications for a fight is to pick up your team when it gets down or starts flat. It can change momentum in the game. But now that teams are more closely matched, we just don't have as much as that as we used to. So, from one season to the next, it's evolved," famed fighter Stu Grimson told ESPN last year.

Which brings us back to Ovechkin and Svechnikov. Tension in the first-round playoff series between the two players - one, a 33-year-old veteran, and the other, a 19-year-old kid who said, "It's fun to play against" Ovechkin earlier Monday - erupted with a first-period fight.

Neither player seemed to have a clear impetus for stepping so outside their usual role; Carolina was returning to a raucous home-ice crowd and trailed the overall series, but was already up 1-0. And it seems doubtful that Ovechkin thought his team needed a scrum to get going - or that he should be the one to spark it.

Yet they fought anyway, to a disastrous end.

And according to the NHL's top scorer, Svechnikov initiated it.

"First of all, I hope he's OK," Ovechkin told reporters after the game, via NBC Sports. "I'm not a big fighter and he's same way. He asked me to fight and I said, let's go. Yeah."

At this point, we only have Ovechkin's side of it, so we don't know exactly what happened between the two before Svechnikov was out cold.

The Capital's side of it is believable if only because his last fight was in December 2010, per HockeyFights.com. Eight years is a long time to go without throwing down, so why would Ovechkin randomly decide to fight an inexperienced rookie if he wasn't challenged to?

But on the other side, why would any player pick his first big-league fight to be against a "Russian machine" with about 40 pounds on him? Neither of those scenarios seem likely.

Brind'Amour disputes Ovechkin's account.

Unless Svechnikov publicly shares his side of events at some point, we may never know the details of what took place during the moments before Monday's fight. And even if he had initiated it, he surely never imagined it would end so poorly.

That's part of the risk with fighting at all, and the uncertainty is perhaps contributing to its decrease. It's worth discussing whether or not the league needs to step in and ban fighting or establish far stricter penalties for it, regardless of what players think.

"Are there times when there needs to be a fight? Yes, for sure," Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said, via the Chicago Tribune in 2016. "You have to police yourselves sometimes on the ice. …

"When you see a fight now it's a response, someone didn't like something that was done on the ice. I think you need that. It's healthy. With concussions and injuries you never want to see guys get hurt, but I still think there is a time and a place for it."

What seems most obvious about the Ovechkin-Svechnikov fight is that it wasn't the time nor place for that fight. Whoever started it shouldn't have.

Hockey is inherently dangerous and often violent, and fighting increases the risk of injury exponentially.

With all the dangers, maybe the league should abolish fighting for the sake of player safety. Maybe the players will gradually do it themselves. But until then, fighting remains an integral part of the game as players continue to drop their gloves from time to time.

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