Whether it's Orr on Fedoruk (a freak occurence in the middle of a clean fight), Jordin Tootoo on Stephane Robidas (a questionable punch by a player ostensibly defending himself) or Chris Simon on Ryan Hollweg (a cheap shot that had nothing at all to do with fighting), the NHL's image has taken a beating lately (no pun intended), and the mainstream commentators parrot the conventional wisdom that events like these happen because the NHL condones - even encourages - fighting.
Now, clearly if fighting were banned entirely, Todd Fedoruk would be waking up in his own bed - and not in a hospital bed - today. Then again, if fighting were banned entirely, Todd Fedoruk wouldn't have a job in the NHL. But fighting in hockey doesn't exist to keep plumbers like Fedoruk employed. Rather, the argument goes, it exists to keep skilled players alive and well and fans in the seats. I'm not going to go into a detailed explanation here of why the NHL needs fighting - read "The Code" or check out this bulleted list for some of the pros and cons of banning fighting - but I believe that there is a time and a place for pugilism in the NHL game. But when events like those referenced above happen and make it into mainstream sports or even news broadcasts, something needs to be done about the culture in the game because for most Americans, that is their primary exposure to hockey.
All of this is a rather drawn-out lead-in to my suggestion: the NHL should pass a rule whereby a) a player who gets in multiple fights over a given span of time gets suspended, and b) a player who receives a concussion in a fight and gets in another fight over a different time period gets similarly suspended. For example, if a player gets in a fight on Tuesday, he can't get in another until, say, the following Tuesday (maybe two weeks is better, but I'm not the expert) or he gets suspended for a game. The second time it happens, it's two games, and so on. If a player gets concussed in a fight, he can't get in another for a month or he gets suspended.
Think this is Draconian? The World Boxing Association mandates that any boxer who has suffered a knockout be kept out of the ring for sixty days. If that boxer suffers a knockout in his next fight or within three months of the first knockout, he's not allowed to fight for six months. In fact, a boxer can't get back into the ring under WBA regulations for at least 14 days after a fight, regardless of the result or length of the fight. And, oh yeah, boxers don't drop their padded gloves before they fight.
The specifics obviously need some ironing out, but the benefits of rules like these that I have proposed are numerous. For example, the NHL can look like they're serious about curbing violence in the sport, which will be a tremendous public relations boost at a time that it's needed. They'd get rid of some of the pointless "I'm tougher than you are" fighting that is far too common in the League (why on earth did Andrew Peters challenge Donald Brashear last night anyway?). And obviously it would protect players from some of the long-term effects of having their heads used as punching bags. At the same time, however, the League would keep the "tradition" and intimidation/enforcement aspects of fighting in the game and not alienate (too much further) the blood-thirsty neanderthals who would rather pay money to see the Jordin Tootoos of the League than the Paul Kariyas.
One problem with rules like these are that you would have games in which a player was carrying with him a fighting major and would potentially be unable to perform his role as an enforcer until he was in the clear to fight again. But all that does is add a little more thought into the equation, as the player would have to think to himself, "Did the guy I want to fight do something that's worth me taking a game or two off to redress?" Chances are that with that calculus going on, the "right" decision will be made more often than not, and unnecessary fighting will all but disappear.
Would these rules have saved Todd Fedoruk last night? Actually, if it was a two week rule, it would have. But that's not really my point, which is simply that the NHL needs to improve its image with respect to sensational violence and this is one way to do it without sacrificing fighting altogether. It's a compromise between the two sides of the issue and one that makes sense for everyone involved.
UPDATE: I've followed up this post with another that contains some clarifications for those of us whose reading comprehension skills might leave something to be desired (or, perhaps, in the event that my fingers didn't fully keep up with my brain in this post).