In 2010, the National Lacrosse League’s Board of Governors decided to increase the dressing roster from 16 to 18 runners. The owners felt that since they were already paying 23 players they might as well dress them. At the time, I think owners and GMs felt like the extra players would allow them to dress a draw-man (i.e. FOGO) and/or a goon. Just over 2 years later and some are saying fighting is dead. Prior to this past weekend, the NLL was averaging a fight every three games (32%). After last weekend’s line brawl in Buffalo and dust ups in Philly, that number is up to 44%, not far off the numbers from the past 10 years.
|Year||Fights||Avg. Per Game|
So clearly fighting is not dead in the literal sense, but we have seen a shift in the role it plays game to game. Prior to the 2013 Season the fighting rules were tweaked once again to further penalize the instigator/aggressor and eliminate line brawls. Verbiage was inserted to protect the “unwilling combatant” who is “attacked” by an instigator.
The 2013 NLL Rulebook defines an “unwilling combatant” as a player who attempts to defend himself against his opponent by protecting himself from incoming blows and or punches. The unwilling combatant will use his best efforts to deflect any incoming blows or punches. The unwilling combatant criteria will include not dropping his gloves, not taking his helmet off on his own accord, or any other actions that would constitute the player being deemed as willing to engage in the fight. Also, the unwilling combatant does not initially counter with any return punches or blows. The unwilling combatant may be subject to appropriate penalties, if any, for his actions.
This clarification was to avoid the situation where both players are assessed majors when one player is clearly starting the fight and the other is protecting himself, at least initially.
We saw this on February 15 when Calgary visited Toronto. The Roughnecks were down 11-6 in the 3rd quarter and Snider grabbed Scott Evans probably out of frustration and in an attempt to shift the momentum of the game. Evans showed no interest in fighting back and was not penalized while Snider got 5 for fighting, 2 for instigator and a game misconduct. The Rock scored 3 goals on the ensuing power play.
This scenario was a back breaker for the Riggers and is a lesson likely to make frustrated players think twice before starting something in the future. Many NLL coaches believe fighting, as a mechanism to change the momentum in a game, is no longer a viable tactic. Bandits assistant Rich Kilgour is one. “Games are so tight and if someone starts something and is turned down that gives the other team more momentum.”
There are several reasons why players fight: (1) to police the game; (2) to change the momentum; (3) to send a message; (4) out of frustration; (5) entertainment.
Stiffer penalties for head-shots and other dangerous fouls—and more specifically the administration of such infractions by the referees—affect fighting. When players are allowed to beat up on top offensive players without being penalized by the officials, coaches and players feel the need to intervene. Washington’s Head Coach and Competition Committee member Chris Hall has been a proponent of getting rid of fighting. “My philosophy is to try and eliminate fighting from the game. We have taken a serious look at high sticking, cross checking and concussions…we are serious about that.” Five-minute penalties with the ability to score 3 goals tend to negatively reinforce those behaviors. Game suspensions and fines are additional deterrents for such fouls.
The NLL has gotten faster and more athletic. Gone are the days of dressing a goon. Today’s Heavyweights (Suitor, Snider, Dawson, Smith) are all guys who play a regular shift. Coaches want them on the floor, not in the box. Take for instance Rory Smith. His first couple of years in the league he went looking for fights and at the time the Titans were in serious need of an enforcer. Upon landing in Colorado, Head coach Bob Hamley sat down with Smith to talk over his role. “We talked about being the best defender he could be. We set goals and he has really taken that to task. We see him as one of the top defenders in the game and he has worked hard to get there,” recalls Hamley. Others around the league have notice as well, naming Smith a starter for the West in the 2012 All Star Game.
A few years ago we saw more fights or attempts at starting fights in order to change the momentum of a game. Short of a couple quick goals, nothing can incite a team and its fans more than a good tilt. Most would-be fighters are too smart and well coached to fall for this anymore. Hamley went so far as to say he doesn’t think there is a strategy for it anymore. Kilgour admitted that he is “totally against staged fighting versus (ones) coming out of emotion or running a goalie. Guys play really hard and sometimes they lose their temper…if they find a willing combatant then so be it.”
Skewing this year’s numbers is the Bandits and Mammoth line brawl that ended Saturday night’s contest. Chris Hall mentioned that the NLL Competition Committee is attempting to discourage such events.
Players are now assessed a match penalty instead of a game misconduct for subsequent fights after the original in the same stoppage. This means a one game suspension on top of being ejected from the game. Two such infractions in a year get you two games. You would expect these harsher penalties to prevent additional fights from happening. But as we saw in Buffalo on Saturday…sometimes you just have to go.
Since it was Marty O’Neill’s comment in January that “Fighting Is Dead” that got me started, it’s only fair to let him explain what he meant. “Fighting as a means of frustration will never leave the game, as we saw this past weekend. Fighting to gain an edge needs willing combatants and they are few and far between nowadays. We aren’t seeing much of the staged stuff anymore since the league has lost Brandon Francis and Troy Bonterreand others of that mold. In the case of Snider versus Suitor it was Round 2 of two solid team players that had a date with destiny after Suitor knocked the champ off his perch last year. So, it is not an easy or acceptable way to seek a change in the flow of a game anymore. Hence, I say fighting is dead.”A nine-year NLL veteran and former GM and head coach of the Boston Blazers, Ryan also coached Team USA at the '07 WILC and will do so again in 2011 in Prague. To purchase Ryan's Stir It Up DVD click here.
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