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With fewer fights, familiarity is failing to breed contempt
Mark Spector, National Post
Published: Wednesday, November 01, 2006

So, most everyone agrees with Vancouver GM Dave ("I hate the schedule") Nonis when it comes to the National Hockey League's rivalry-based schedule.

Then the real question should be, whatever happened to the NHL's rivalries?

Ask an old timer such as Bryan Marchment -- who played back in the day when rivals were rivals and linesmen were nervous -- what happened and he'll tell you. Darcy Tucker happened.

"I don't know if Tucker fights or what," began Marchment, the rough-and-ready defenceman who is currently between teams. He doesn't want to sound "like a sour, old, half-retired guy," but he couldn't believe his eyes when he watched Tucker beat up Ottawa pacifist Patrick Eaves last Tuesday on home ice, then turn tail and run when Ottawa's Chris Neil sidled up to Tucker on the first shift of the Thursday rematch just two nights later in Ottawa.

"The media is trying to build it all up, Chris Neil goes over and talks to him on the first shift, and Tucker doesn't respond? Then, the Leafs go out and get their asses kicked 7-2."

During his 16-year NHL career, Marchment played leading roles in such rivalries as the Battles of Alberta and Ontario, the short-lived but violent Dallas-San Jose, plus Chicago vs. Anyone Else in the old Chuck Norris Division. So when he sat down in front of the TV for the second game of last week's home-and-home series between the Maple Leafs and Senators -- after Toronto had their posteriors handed to them 6-2 in the opener -- he was expecting some intensity. And, yes, maybe even a scrap or two.

"They've got enough big guys on that team, somebody should do something," Marchment said. "Basically, the game was [lost] before the puck was dropped. That would have never happened before. Someone whispering sweet nothings in your ear, and nothing happens? Man."

It was some brilliant work by Gary Bettman and his boys to avoid banning fighting altogether, and instead change the rules so that fighting would simply die a death of attrition over time. Honestly -- the game hasn't been this good in years.

What has happened as a result however, is that the rivalries we've grown up on have become a casualty of the new NHL.

Why are players and fans bored of seeing the same divisional opponent eight times per season? It's simple: familiarity no longer breeds contempt the way it used to. Teams used to brawl, which carried the excitement into the next game, and the next one. And, in the old divisional playoff system, rivals met each other every other spring like clockwork, intensifying the relationship.

Today, it's just the same two teams playing hockey eight times a year -- plus, often, a couple of times in pre-season -- at the expense of seeing stars from the other conference only once every three years. The payoff isn't there any more, nor are the playoff series that forge a rivalry.

You could argue that a good rivalry should not need any fighting, and you can believe that if it makes you feel better about yourself. But it's a straight fact that as the fighting has declined between heated hockey rivals, so too has the emotion, the passion, the pre-game hype and the in-game noise at the arenas.

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