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Bettman Takes a Shot At Fighting Debate

Toronto — When Gary Bettman approached Ray Emery during the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup celebration at the White House, many wondered what would happen.

The Philadelphia Flyers goaltender had drawn leaguewide attention a few days earlier for skating the length of the ice to fight an unwilling combatant in Braden Holtby.

“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 today at their annual meeting.

“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.”

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 said 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.”

Bettman wants to take the pulse of GMs. That includes feelings about goaltenders fighting and other topics. Emery was not suspended for pummeling Holtby because there is nothing in the rules to use as precedent.

Bettman expects a “general discussion” but does not think any rule changes will come about just yet. He adds that 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 is being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night, is expected to address the GMs.

Bettman clearly does not want the issue of fighting to overshadow other developments this season — the Colorado Avalanche’s hot start, strong television ratings and arenas filled to 95 percent of capacity.

Another topic drawing attention is expansion because of unbalanced divisions created by realignment. Having 32 teams would even out the divisions, but Bettman says there are no such plans in the works.

“I don’t envision right now going through a formal expansion process,” he said after 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.”