Is it time for the NHL to eliminate fighting?
I’ve heard that question asked 100 times if I’ve heard it once in the last 28 years or so writing about hockey for a living, and I’ve always had the same reaction. I’d look at the Goody Two Shoes asking it like they were some sort of drooling fool, scowl or roll my eyes and say, "Hell, no." Quite often, followed by a barely audible, "Sissy."
When somebody raises the topic or poses the question now, I find I’m not reacting the same way. I’m not sure when my opinion on bare-knuckles fighting changed, and I’m not certain exactly how far it’s shifted, but the question no longer offends me.
I don’t see the possibility of taking the act of "dropping the gloves" out of hockey as some sort of sacrilegious assault on the integrity of the game. I don’t perceive posing the question as a misplaced bit do-good-ism, as a query to be dismissed off-hand because it clashes, rather mightily in my particular case, with the way I’ve always viewed fisticuffs.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m now of the opinion it’s a question that is at least worth asking, even if some of you out there are bound to roll your eyes and utter, "Sissy."
When people used to raise the issue of fighting, I’d say," It’s part of the game." It seemed like a handy default answer. Hockey players have been punching each other senseless since the first puck hit the ice, so, in that regard, yes, it’s part of the game.
Then again, having goaltenders play bare-faced was once part of the game. I’m old enough to remember it. If you’re in your 20s or even 30s, think about that. Goaltenders used to face shooters bare-faced — slap shots, screened shots. Pile-ups in the crease, skate blades, sticks. Now, if a goaltender loses his mask, the referee blows the whistle.
Having players play without helmets was once part of the game. I used to figure that was a personal choice by players and so did the NHL — use of helmets was grandfathered in and bare-headed players, Craig MacTavish was the last, disappeared. A bad thing?
Take something as basic as the netting required in the end zone of rinks to protect fans from wayward pucks. After 13-year-old Britannie Cecil died after being struck in the head by a puck in a game between the Blue Jackets and Calgary Flames in March 2002, the NHL mandated safety netting would be installed in rinks. There was great debate.
"Netting? We won’t be able to see" or "You can’t put netting in. We’ve never had netting." A young girl died but there was still debate. Do we give netting a thought now?
Times change. And when people are permanently injured or even killed because of what we do and how we do it, even allowing for reasonable risks that are inherent in a game like hockey, they should.
PART OF THE GAME
I don’t like what doctors found when they looked at Bob Probert’s brain. I’m uncomfortable Raitis Ivanans hasn’t played a game since a Steve MacIntyre punch dropped him like he’d been shot in the head. There was a time when I wouldn’t have given the brain injuries suffered by Probert and Ivanans a second throught. Part of the job.
Framed in what we’re learning about brain injuries suffered by athletes and the long-term effects of those injuries, I’m wondering if we should take another look at what we consider "part of the game."
I’m conflicted about that. I’ve always felt something of a kinship with hockey tough guys, players who take up that last spot or two on a roster because they’re willing to bend noses and kick ass, to take care of business and ride shotgun, to put themselves in harm’s way.
Guys like Rudy Poeschek, the toughest player I have ever known, and Georges Laraque, a sweetheart away from the rink who I know well and spent many years on the road with. All the hammers, really.
I admire them and always have. Now, I fear for them, well-paid for being ruffians or not.
This isn’t knee-jerk stuff for me. As long-time readers at Oilersnation know, I did the tough guy gig as a lacrosse player. I scrapped some as a hockey player. I had boxing gloves and a heavy bag hanging in my garage from the time I was 13 years old.
I was a big kid — six-foot-two and about 205 pounds by the time I was 14. I liked to fight. I got my ass kicked more times than I remember because of it. Concussions? I don’t know how many. Too many.
It was part of the game and it was my job and a way to be a part of the team. I did it until I got tired of getting beat up and hurting all the time. I got sick of seeing my mom with tears in her eyes because I’d busted my nose or a knuckle again or had punched out another kid. It was not part of the game for her.
Those days long gone, I still enjoyed fighting. I had all the fight tapes in the old VCR days. Later, I had all of the fight websites bookmarked on my computer. I’ve watched Poeschek and Craig Berube pound each other 1,000 times. Trevor Senn? Look him up. The arrival of YouTube? There’s a smorgasbord of mayhem. Great stuff, right?
HERE WE ARE
We didn’t know then — especially going back to when I was 15 or 25 or even 35 — what we know now, what the medical evidence is telling us about brain injuries. About what happens to the players who bring the crowd to their feet when the gloves hit the ice.
So, if the NHL is taking steps to reduce the number of concussions its players sustain by eliminating headshots from the game, how long can it allow players to drop their gloves and punch each other because "it’s part of the game." Because it entertains us?
I know the numbers in recent NHL studies on concussions — Mark Spector at Sportsnet, among others, has written some compelling stuff on this — show fighting isn’t nearly the biggest culprit when it comes to brain injuries. Cheap stuff like Matt Cooke got suspended for and legal hits during the course of a game account for many more.
That said, based on what we know now, how many brain injuries are OK? What’s the number? If the NHL is finds it unacceptable for a player to target the head of another player with a shoulder or an elbow, how much longer can it accept that doing it with a fist is part of the game? I don’t have the answer.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.