Mario Lemieux released an open letter to the NHL in February 2011, urging "we, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action."
"Those kinds of actions" he was referring to was the infamous brawl between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders where the bottom feeding Islanders sent barely NHL level players in Trevor Gillies, Micheal Haley and Matt Martin after the Penguins, in retaliation for the previous game where Pens forward Max Talbot leveled then-Islander Blake Comeau with a clean but devastating check, and in the famous goalie fight Brent Johnson KO'd Rick DiPietro.
After the second game marred with fights, dirty play and Islander revenge, Gillies was suspended for nine games, Haley four games and Pens enforced Eric Godard got rung up with an automatic ten games for leaving the bench when Haley attacked Johnson. The Islanders organization was also fined $100,000 for the lack of control shown by coaches as the melee devolved a hockey game.
Oh yeah, and all the while Sidney Crosby was out from receiving two reckless hits to the head the month before, his career in a state of a murky, terrible pause that he wouldn't pull out of for over a year.
Many criticized Lemieux, since his team that year were no saints- they were near the top of the league in fighting majors and also employed thuggish players like Godard and dangerous ones like Matt Cooke. Cooke would make Lemieux look foolish a few weeks later with a blatant elbow to the head of Ryan McDonaugh- a move the Penguins swiftly condemned and took the overdue step of forcing treatment and rehabilitation on Cooke.
That got me wondering, in general, has hockey moved to clean up it's act? Is the old, tired joke about going to a fight and a hockey game breaking out still hold water?
The 2013 season, of course, is just 48 games thanks to the greed-filled lockout of 2012, but the trend is quite clear that fights have been on the decline in the NHL over the past handful of seasons. According to the great Hockey Fights, there were only 933 fighting majors in the NHL in the 2013-14 season, down 34% from the 1,423 fights back in 2009-10.
The Penguins have also been on the decline- they've only had 80 fights in 212 games since their fight-filled 2010-11 season (which their 71 majors were second in the league). By coincidence or by plan they have shed organizational ties with enforcers like Godard and Steve MacIntyre, who do not play the game at a professional level but are only in the sport due to their side-show fighting abilities.New rules to regulate visors on incoming players and mandating helmets stay on during fights also are working to help stem the tide of fights, which is probably a factor being seen league-wide.
Pittsburgh has also lost their two of their biggest fighters from 2013-14 in Deryk Engelland and Tanner Glass this off-season- two marginal players that often fight. Both players however signed with other NHL teams for three years contracts, and at significant raises, indicating their skillsets are not wholly unwanted by the league, it should be noted.
This isn't to romanticize the personnel choices the Penguins have made- they've signed and promoted players recently like Pierre-Luc Leblond-Leterneau primarily for this fighting ability, and have signed reckless and potentially loose cannon type players like Steve Downie and Harry Zolnierczyk over the years.
The Pens are not above "grit and toughness" in a league that still very much stresses physical play and sees tempers boil over by very large, aggressive men that are holding sticks and have blades attached to their feet. The NHL might see fighting on the decline, but there's evidence that head injuries and other instances of brutality is still in the game, as perhaps it always will be as long as ice hockey remains the physical, intense sport we all know and love.
That said, the takeaway here is that if you go to an NHL game now, you're less likely to see a fight breakout on the ice, and if you go to a Pittsburgh Penguins game, it will be an even more rare occurrence.