Fighting and hockey have always gone hand-in-hand like hot fudge on an ice cream sundae. But just like you don’t crave the ice cream any less without the topping, fights in hockey are an unessential addition to the game. If the NHL takes fighting from the sport, it will not hurt the overall product that we watch every night.
In politician Ralph Nader’s open letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, he is dead-on in his challenge to eliminate fighting from hockey. After all, is the entertainment value a fight can provide really worth more than a human life?
Here is a sample of the letter to Commissioner Bettman, from Leagueoffans.org:
Fighting in hockey can no longer be a long-debated issue pitting those who find it barbaric and unsportsmanlike and those who argue that it’s an integral part of the fabric of the game. The growing mound of research on sports concussions and brain injuries has taken the fighting issue to an entirely different level. We’re talking about short-and-long-term damage to the brain, the very foundation of who we are as people.
Commissioner Bettman, it’s very possible that concussions and degenerative brain disease caused by blows to the head — such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — will be the biggest issue in sports in the coming decade. Continuing to downplay what we know about sports-based brain injuries, while simultaneously supporting fighting as an elemental aspect of the NHL game, is simply irresponsible.
You are right on one point: science has yet to provide us with all the answers when it comes to head trauma and concussions. But we do know that concussions are a big problem and we all intuitively know that a fist swung against a skull at a high rate of speed is not good for the brain inside that skull.
Fighting Still a Problem
Despite the current awareness of concussions in sports, fighting in the NHL this year is on pace to surpass similar incidents recorded the season before the last NHL lockout.
Before the NHL lockout that killed the 2004-05 season, there were 789 fighting majors in the previous season. However, when the NHL returned after the lockout (2005-06 season), fighting majors were down to only 497.
This reduction in fighting did not stick though, as fighting majors reached 1,489 during the 2008-09 season. And, over the course of 56 games this season, players are dropping their gloves at an alarming rate of 706 fighting majors, and there's still a quarter of a season left to play.
Severity of the Problem
It's not just the amount of fighting that is a problem, it is also the seriousness of these fights, which can be seen through the recent deaths of three former enforcers: Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak.
All three of these players suffered from CTE after receiving repeated blows to their brains during fights. As mentioned on CBC News Canada, addiction, depression and anxiety are likely a result of CTE, and neurosurgeons from Boston University continue to study the brains of deceased athletes to draw more concrete evidence to such.
Rypien committed suicide, Boogaard overdosed on painkillers, and while Belak’s cause of death was never made known to the public, it has been said that he battled depression. All three passed away at a young age unnecessarily.
Not the Only One
If the NHL would take this call to action and eliminate fighting, they would not be the first hockey league to go this route.
Fighting is banned in a number of other hockey leagues like the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), NCAA Hockey, while the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) has banned "staged fights" that are set up between two players. These leagues still provide compelling action without slowing the pace of the game because of a brawl between two players.
You won’t see the current crop of NHL players rise up and voice their opinions to stop fighting from the sport, but that hasn’t kept players from wanting to shed their role as the team’s designated fighter.
From The Globe and Mail, Flames winger Michael Cammalleri said this about playing with these type of players and their concern about dropping the gloves during a game:
"Almost all the guys I've played with in that heavyweight fighter role usually end up not really loving their identity and struggling with what their role really is and actually despise fighting, at some point in their career,” he said.
"Usually they come into the league and they're really willing to do it and they just want to make the league and get a paycheck and they're cool with that role and they kind of like it. And usually fairly quickly they start disliking that role and want to be much more than that and actually don't want to fight.”
If the NHL wants to phase fighting out of their sport, then they should implement a new rule beginning in the 2012-13 season. Such a rule could state that if you fight, you are automatically given a game misconduct and are suspended for the next game.
The NHL has a rule for the final minutes of a game saying:
46.22 Fines and Suspensions – Instigator in Final Five Minutes of Regulation Time (or Anytime in Overtime) - A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation in the final five (5) minutes of regulation time or at anytime in overtime (see 46.12) shall be suspended for one game, pending a review of the incident.
When the one-game suspension is imposed, the Coach shall be fined $10,000 – a fine that will double for each subsequent incident.
With a rule like this already in place, extending it to encompass the entire game should not be that big of an adjustment for the players and would only benefit the NHL.
Improving the Game
The game is getting faster, players are becoming stronger and we keep losing our top stars to head related injuries. Eliminating fighting from the game will not be the end of the NHL as we know it.
Instead, taking away fighting will make the game better, as it will force players to focus more on skill rather than trying to inflict as much pain as possible on their opponent.
Mr. Nader was right; it’s time to fix the game and make it a safer environment for the league’s top stars. The league is already taking steps to make the game better by banning blows to the head. They must now make the next move by banning fighting.
This issue is the biggest hurdle on the road to a better NHL.