Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill talks about the loss of Anthony Mantha to hand surgery. Ted Kulfan, The Detroit News
Detroit — Stay the course.
The Red Wings should not back down, and when Anthony Mantha or any of them feel they must defend with their fists, they should have at it.
Jeff Blashill is right. Sticking up for each other is a way for the Wings to fly.
Hockey is a rough, tough game, in the big league.
Men skate, sometimes at speeds approaching 30 mph, equipped like football players, carrying sticks on a playing surface confined by boards and Plexiglas, in the heat of the moment.
And, sometimes despite the best efforts of officials, the action is not always well-regulated.
A hand broken while fighting the Avalanche will cost the Red Wings Anthony Mantha, until sometime in January.
A prospective star, Mantha skated the ice in recent games as if he could rule.
It is the sort of performance the Red Wing and their fans have sought from the big, gifted, quicker-than-he looks forward for several seasons.
It happened just as Mantha, Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi, Dennis Cholowski and Michael Rasmussen provided the most hope the Wings have dared to feel since Pavel Datsyuk’s departure.
In November, they played for a sustained interval as if they might be the stars of future Stanley Cup contenders.
An against-odds competitiveness and esprit de corps drives them.
The Wings have what their coach has sought for more than a year, an emerging identity. They hope to blend toughness with speed and defensive responsibility.
They are tough when they start 1-7-2 and win 11 of the next 17.
They are tough when they come back from two-goal deficits, serially.
They are tough when they discipline themselves to continually hunt and hound opponents, closing gaps, fore-checking and back-checking.
And, they are tough when they fight.
The role of brawling in the NHL is debatable, especially given the advancing knowledge of how the brain functions.
Doctors advise that the brain trauma that causes a progressive degenerative disease of the brain, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), includes the asymptomatic sub-concussive hits to the head that cause no symptoms.
Body contact would have to be prohibited to stop it, entirely.
That the NHL denies the connection as a legal strategy is obscene.
But, fighting is in the game now, and it has its purpose, especially when violent confrontations violate the rules and are undetected, misjudged or willfully allowed by the referees.
The debate over fighting in the NHL should be welcomed.
My own view is that prohibiting it would result in other assaultive behavior, especially with the sticks. Because fighting, like it or not, is how players police themselves.
It functions as important deterrence.
In interviews and media scrums early this season, some of the younger Wings made clear their intention to stick-up for each other. They expressed a willingness to accept responsibility for the consequences, whether it is five minutes in the box or injury.
In his coach’s mind, no one should criticize Mantha for rising to the task of the Red Wings for their intention to play that way.
But, landing repeated blows to the top of Patrik Nemeth’s head, and even continuing after Nemeth let out what seemed be an involuntary wail, may provide a lesson that the process of skinning a cat includes choosing among alternatives.
That said, injuries, especially to the hands, are a factor in fighting.
In his rookie season, Gordie Howe said he received a lecture from Jack Adams about fighting. Adams, Howe said, told him he needed to play, not serve penalties.
“I respected what Mr. Adams said about fighting,” Howe wrote in his 2014 autobiography, “Mr. Hockey.”
“But, if it was a choice between that and sticking up for a teammate, then it seemed like an easy decision in my books.”
In March 2017, Mantha broke a finger fighting.
He said earlier this season he would do more of it, when necessary.
“It is something I want to do, for the guys,” he said.
Announcing the extent of Mantha’s injury, Blashill put it his way: “At any time that you get a team that doesn’t care about each other, no chance.
“The best chance for us to have great success here is for us to make sure that we’re looking after each other, at all times. And, sometimes these things are going to happen.
“That’s the reality of life.
“Just like saying, should we block shots? Of course, we should block shots. Because that’s the sacrifice it takes to win.”