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Maven's Ravin': The Biggest Fight: The Reactions, Good, Bad -- but Definitely Not Indifferent

Within a dozen hours two remarkable events stunned my long hockey life as never before.

At the start of the Ranger-Devils game on Monday night at The Garden, not one, not two but THREE fights erupted simultaneously. I've been watching hockey games since 1939 and I've never experienced three-ring bouts all igniting at the same time.

Then, early on Tuesday I walked into our MSG Network offices and before I could stir my coffee or mix my cream, one-by-one several colleagues came to me with virtually the same question: "What did you think of the fights last night?" The only time I'd ever be confronted by so many interested folks in so short a time would be following a playoff game.

My opening reply was simple and historic. Outstanding fights are as much a part of The Game's legacy as big goals. Likewise, classic bouts are recalled with the relish of Cup wins; sometimes more so.

I'm not going to kid you about my stance on ice fisticuffs: I've written several books about fighting -- "Bad Boys, One, Two and Three," for starters -- and I still love to talk about my favorite bouts. In fact, THE biggest, all-players-involved mass fight took place between the Rangers and Canadiens in March 1947 at the Old Garden. And the most devastating one-on-one between heavyweights -- Rangers, Lou Fontinato; Detroit's Gordie Howe -- was one I saw in 1959 and will never forget.

"If you take fighting out of hockey," said Howe, the best player I've ever seen, "it would really make it dull."

That's precisely the feeling of many "hockey people" -- those who make their living out of The Game -- whether they're a pro-fighting type like Toronto's GM Brian Burke or a minor league boss such as Bob Ohrablo who runs the new Orlando franchise in the ECHL. They both share the philosophy of Maple Leafs founder Conn Smythe who had the following insightful line about fighting.

"If we don't put a stop to it," noted Smythe, "we'll have to start printing more tickets."

Longtime hockey fan Rich Rahner, a television technical operator from Long Island, rejects the "Stop fighting" comments from critics who he labels "pontificating blowhards." Rahner puts it this way:

"There's been fighting in hockey for the past 100 years. It plays a role in the game and serves a purpose. Every true hockey fan knows this. So, here's the fallout of the Monday 'incident.' Six guys got into a fight at the beginning of a tense game. They fought. Each player received five minutes for fighting.

"Then they played a high-intensity, extremely entertaining hockey game. If some fans were so traumatized by the three-fight start, then maybe hockey isn't their thing and they should, instead, watch ping pong. I don't think that there's fighting in ping pong!"

My own personal poll of fans who saw the Rangers-Devils tri-fights night came out, split, 50-50 down the middle among those pro and con. Some rooters, such as Sruli Beitler of Cedarhurst, Long Island, thought it was more fun than the Paul Newman flick, "Slapshot".

"Those fights were like old-time hockey," said Beitler. "It revealed the hatred bursting out of the Rangers-Devils rivalry. It worked the crowd into a craze. What's more, people who normally don't talk about hockey were lighting up the radio talk shows."

No less intriguing was the verbal battle between the respective coaches, John Tortorella and Peter DeBoer. The words -- a few choice gestures as well -- continued sizzling post-game and again on Tuesday when Torts added his postscript to the Monday night postscript.

An out-of-town network hockey man chortled when I apprised him that some folks took a dim view of the brawling not to mention the coaches' charges and countercharges.

"What I noticed," the network guy said, "is that hockey made the back (lead) page of the sports sections when normally it does not. People are still talking about it here and in Canada. When all is said and done, it's become one helluva good story."

Which is precisely my point but not that of some fans who share Torts' belief that "We took a backwards step." Others -- and I agree with this -- would love "staged fights" to be erased from hockey's blackboard.

Veteran New York sports radio personality Rich Ackerman seconds the motion.

"The best thing that could be said about the opening three seconds between the Rangers and Devils," said Ackerman, "was that the nonsense was out of the way and a hockey game could be played. And it was a darn good one, too."

This much is certain; 1. The NHL will not ban fighting; 2. Commissioner Bettman has taken no action against any of the six New York-New Jersey battlers nor their respective coaches; 3. The Rangers-Devils rivalry has bubbled beyond the boiling point; 4. Should the two clubs meet in the playoffs -- well -- WOW!

"Let's face it," concluded my buddy Ohrablo who has made a career out of hockey, "there are three things that bring fans out of their seats: a goal; a home team win and a fight!"

In the case of Rangers-Devils on Monday night, what brought fans out of their seats was three fights in three-quarter time and -- guess what? -- we're still talking about it. And will, no doubt, for years to come.

If you don't believe me, ask the legendary hockey personality, Don (Grapes) Cherry who once opined, "The fans love fighting. The players don't mind. The coaches like the fights. What's the big deal?"


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