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Will NHL’s rivalry-friendly realignment increase fighting?

The four-conference realignment the NHL's Board of Governors approved this week should be a boon to hockey rivalries. The repetitive nature of divisional playoffs will create new feuds, rekindle old ones and make in-conference games models of intensity. The reconstituted Patrick and Norris Divisions promise to reopen old scars.

Rocky Wirtz remembers the Norris. The chairman of the Chicago Blackhawks told the Sun-Times that it hockey at its most intense when the Hawks would play the Minnesota North Stars:

"You couldn't wait to play the North Stars again," Wirtz said in a phone interview from California on Tuesday.

"I remember how they used to chant, 'Dino sucks.' Then the goaltenders would get in on it. They were good. There is nothing like a good rivalry."

No sir, there isn't; and although those battles occurred in a more pugilistic and frequently chaotic era than today's National Hockey League, fighting was often a byproduct of those rivalries.

This morning, Chris Botta of the New York Times pondered something we hadn't considered during all the realignment chatter but that now seems glaringly obvious: With the new format designed to turn each conference into a powder keg of rivalries and intense playoff races, it's only natural that the number of fights could dramatically rise in the NHL starting next season.

That would reverse the current trend, mind you.

Fighting isn't just down this season, it's way down: Through Dec. 7 last season, there had been 485 fighting majors in the NHL; through that same span this season, there have been just 338. The New York Rangers lead the NHL with 22 fights; the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings have only had four each. (Gee, what's the common denominator there?)

It's no secret that fighting, in many ways, is at a crossroads in the NHL. The emphasis on player safety and the illegality of blows to the head on bodychecks runs counter to the winking acceptance to fighting. Stories like the remarkable package the Times did on Derek Boogaard(notes) have affected the public's appetite for fighting.

But the NHL and Gary Bettman have steadfastly kept fighting as a separate issue from illegal hits, saying the incidences of concussions in fighting have remained constant rather than rising.

Via Nick Cotsonika, Bettman said:

Bettman said: "We do know that if we take the steps to reduce the incidence of concussions, that's a good thing for our players." But while the NHL has stiffened the rules governing boarding and illegal hits to the head, has revamped the supplemental discipline system and has seen concussions drop by about one-third this season, it has not stiffened the rules governing fighting.

Why?

"Our fans tell us that they like the level of physicality in our game," Bettman said, "and for some people it's an issue, but it's not as big an issue in terms of fans and people in the game to the extent that other people suggest that it is."

Those fans that like physicality are going to see plenty of it under the new realignment, we imagine.

Do you anticipate a rise in fighting under the new format?

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