When Gary Bettman approached Ray Emery during the Chicago Blackhawks' recent Stanley Cup celebration at the White House, everyone around wondered what was going to happen.
The Philadelphia Flyers goaltender had drawn league-wide attention just a few days earlier for skating the length of the ice to fight an unwilling combatant in Braden Holtby. Naturally, that came up.
"I said: 'Oh, Ray. It's good to see you. I've been thinking about you.' We had a nice chat," the commissioner said. "And I said, 'So just hypothetically, if there was a rule that said if you cross the red line to get into a fight with the other goaltender and you get a 10-game suspension, would you have done it?' He goes, 'What? Are you crazy?"'
It might not be a 10-game suspension, but NHL general managers will discuss potential changes to fighting rules Tuesday at their annual meeting following Hall of Fame induction weekend.
'I think sometimes an incident, as rare as it might be, tends to get focused on disproportionately.' - NHL commissioner Gary Bettman
Bettman acknowledged that incidents like George Parros being concussed after falling during a fight with Colton Orr and what Emery did sparked plenty of debate, but he made it clear it's just one of many topics on the agenda.
"I think the level of dialogue gets sparked by an occasional incident, and an incident of this nature when you look at everything else that is going on in the season was really a small pebble relative to a beach full of sand, which is seeing an incredibly entertaining season," Bettman said Monday. "I think sometimes an incident, as rare as it might be, tends to get focused on disproportionately."
During his remarks at the Prime Time Sports Management conference in Toronto, Bettman called fighting a "thermostat" in hockey that helps cool things down when tensions run high.
"When Vinny Lecavalier was in a fight with [Jarome] Iginla … they got mad at each other," he said during his question-and-answer session. "I'd rather them be punching each other than swinging sticks at each other."
Sides in fighting debate 'really dug in'
One of the arguments against the abolition of fighting, or even making the punishment a game misconduct or suspension, is that it would cause more high-sticks and cheap shots. Bettman did not overtly reveal his opinion one way or the other but said that feelings on both sides of the fighting debate are "really dug in."
"To say you're getting rid of fighting, I'm not even sure what that means because you can change the penalty and make it more severe," he said. "That doesn't mean if somebody's sufficiently motivated, they're not going to fight. So we'll take the hypothetical. You get thrown out of the game if you fight. OK, I think guys will still fight if they feel the need."
A 2011 poll conducted by the NHLPA and CBC found that 98 per cent of players would not support the total elimination of fighting. Bettman wants to take the pulse of GMs at Tuesday's meeting.
That includes feelings about goaltenders fighting and other topics. Emery was not suspended for pummelling Holtby because there is nothing in the rule book to use as precedent.
Bettman expects a "general discussion" but does not think any rule changes will come about just yet.
Bettman said the current rules, which include a five-minute major for fighting and extra penalties stemming from the instigator and third-man-in rules, represent the consensus among GMs.
"If somebody wants to change it, there needs to be a new consensus," he said. "That's why the discussion's ongoing. Having said that, it continues to evolve as the game does. Four years ago a shoulder hit to the head was not penalized. Now it'll get you suspended. We're going to continue to look at what we can do to keep the game physical but safe as possible."
Senior vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan, who's being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame Monday night, is expected to address the GMs and give his usual update. Hybrid icing will also be on the docket, as Bettman said the adjustment is ongoing for players and officials.
While the Parros and Emery incidents stoked the fire about fighting's place in the NHL, Bettman doesn't want them to overshadow other things that are going on, like the Colorado Avalanche's hot start, strong television ratings and arenas being filled to 95 per cent of capacity.
"We probably wouldn't even be having the fighting discussion right now if there wasn't a freak play with George Parros losing his balance and falling," Bettman said. "Like the Emery-Holtby incident, those things don't define the season we're having. They're important, we look at them, we discuss them, but they get more attention than they probably warrant in any particular case because we're constantly monitoring the game."
'Ultimately if there's going to be a change, there needs to be a new consensus [among] all parties who have to make a decision.' - Gary Bettman
Bettman said the NHL does fan research on a constant basis and not specifically when incidents are in the news. He's also aware of the opinions expressed by league executives, like when Brian Burke wrote an editorial for USA Today in support of fighting.
Tuesday provides a chance for "to see if anybody has an appetite for pursuing" any rule changes, Bettman said.
"Ultimately if there's going to be a change, there needs to be a new consensus [among] all parties who have to make a decision," he said. "We try to do what's in the best interest of the game, and that includes our fans, that includes our clubs and that includes our players. There are lots of views on lots of subjects. This happens to be one which probably gets a disproportionate amount of attention."
Another topic that has gotten a lot of attention is NHL expansion, especially considering unbalanced divisions created by realignment. Having 32 teams would even out the divisions, but Bettman said there were no formal plans to expand.
"I don't envision right now going through a formal expansion process," Bettman said in an interview after speaking at the conference. "We get expressions of interest all the time. Those are informal conversations that we have, but in terms of a formal bid process, I'm not focused on doing anything like that right now."
The league and NHLPA have discussed reviving the World Cup of Hockey, which Bettman said he'd prefer over the Olympics, but the commissioner did not provide an update on those talks.
He did confirm that NHL Premiere games in Europe that happened from 2007 through 2011 will not come back at the start of the 2014-15 season.
"That's something that we and the Players' Association have agreed on," Bettman said. "We think it's too late, all of us. We had a meeting a month ago and we jointly reached that conclusion."