On Tuesday night, the hockey world once again saw the ugly side of fighting. Career enforcer Brian McGrattan, playing for the AHL's San Diego Gulls, was knocked unconscious in a vicious bout with defenceman Daniel Maggio of the San Antonio Rampage.
If the sight of McGrattan's figure lying spread-eagle and face down on the ice wasn't enough to turn a viewer's stomach, the crowd was happy to help. Not only did the spectators cheer during the fight, but the cheering continued as McGrattan lay motionless. At the five-second mark of the video, McGrattan falls to the ice. The cheering continues for the remaining 45 seconds of the video. At the 31-second mark, a triumphant "Good night!" is audible.
It's one of the ugliest sides of a generally beautiful game. Seeing McGrattan knocked unconscious was sickening enough; hearing the crowd cheer it on was unconscionable.
The only good news to come out of this was an update from the Gulls, reporting McGrattan had recovered consciousness and was alert and moving:
McGrattan, a 34-year-old whose career high in points in an NHL season was eight, is hardly a newcomer to the roughest side of the sport. According to hockeyfights.com, over the last 19 years and starting as a teenager in major junior, McGrattan has fought 245 different times. In 2004-05, during the NHL lockout, he fought 39 times in 71 games in the minors and racked up an astonishing 551 penalty minutes.
McGrattan won a lot of those fights; career pugilists don't stay in pro hockey into their mid-30s otherwise. In that sense, his bout with Maggio was an exception to the rule. However, even when fighters are generally successful—or at least aren't knocked down as emphatically as McGrattan was Tuesday—there's a serious risk of injury.
Neurosurgeon Robert Cantu, who studies the brains of professional athletes, explained why in an interview with CBC’s Daniel Schwartz in September 2011:
I have seen a number of enforcers in my practice. They tell me that about one out of every four or five times that they fight they suffer what sounds to me like a concussion, meaning they get stunned or they have other post-concussion symptoms. And they tell me they go to the penalty box and they never tell the training staff they've had a concussion. And they don't complain of their symptoms because they are afraid if they do they will be replaced, their job will be lost.
Cantu noted that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) had been found in the brains of pro athletes, including hockey players Reggie Fleming and Bob Probert. He added that people suffering from CTE often struggle with depressive emotions and have "difficulty handling impulses," including drug and alcohol addiction.
McGrattan has had his own battles with alcoholism, though he's since moved on to helping others battling the disease. In a 2013 interview with Eric Francis of the Calgary Sun, he acknowledged that he'd gone so far as to approach the doctors with the NHL's substance abuse program so that he could be a resource to other players battling addiction.
"I spoke to my parents about it in the summer, and post-hockey it's one of my biggest interests," McGrattan told Francis. "As the years have gone on, I've been more vocal about it, and I feel the more I can give back and help, the more I can save lives."
Despite McGrattan's own successes in this area, other players have not been so fortunate. In September 2015, Sean Fitz-Gerald of the Toronto Star ran a story listing seven NHL fighters who had died prematurely or had shown signs of CTE.
It's hard not to think of those players, and all of the others we don't know about, who have suffered from engaging so forcefully in the most violent part of the game. Tuesday's bout was a dramatic reminder of the cost of including fighting as part of pro hockey, and it should serve as a wake-up call.
Willingly or not, hockey fans are paying money and cheering for men to put their health and their very lives on the line night after night. It's a high cost to pay for entertainment—perhaps even an unconscionable cost.
Few things drive that home more pointedly than watching a crowd gloat and jeer at the figure of a collapsed enforcer.