Its days appear to be numbered, the Mike Millbury brigade notwithstanding. The tricky question is “how?”.
My suggestion is to concentrate not on the elimination of fights, per se, but rather fighters; you know, that guy (or two) on every roster whose only true function is to keep the other team “honest” by doling out retribution for liberties taken against star players and the occasional gladiator bout with the other team’s “tough guy” – the enforcer.
Given recent events suggesting how brutal, dangerous and depressing an enforcer’s existence is, the enforcer function may well be moving towards its expiry date. To hasten it along, I suggest the NHL put a “cap” on the number of fighting majors “permitted” any single player in a given season, once reached, resulting in a playing suspension for the remainder of the season.
Just for the sake of argument, that number should be something in the order of 25 penalty minutes, representing five fights. (Enforcers routinely rack up well over 100 minutes in penalties, mostly fighting majors.) If a general manager of a team knew he could count on a player for a total of only five “tilts” per year, would he make the investment in terms of salary, and more importantly, cap space, that would surround that investment? Would five fights be “worth” $1 Million? I don’t think so.
The Detroit Red Wings, one of the most successful and forward-thinking teams, have operated without an “enforcer” for some time. It appears that many teams have been loathe to eliminate enforcers mostly because other teams still have them.
The elimination of enforcers would have the obvious immediate benefit of opening up roster spots for more “skill” players, with a more well-rounded set of hockey talents. I doubt even the NHLPA would be dumb enough to argue against that. Who would you rather watch – Colton Orr or Matt Frattin?