Written By: Mark “The Hard Hitter” Ritter
Last November Don Sanderson—a rookie defenseman with the Whitby Dunlops—became famous in hockey circles for all the wrong reasons.
During an on-ice fight, Sanderson received a horrific concussion, a concussion that eventually cost him his life. It should be noted that both players tossed their helmets before they chucked the knuckles, all in the name of the “code” of fighting in hockey—that and to save their hands from injury.
It is common for hockey players to toss their helmet before they engage in a fight, and in Sanderson’s case not wearing a helmet proved to be a grave mistake. Yet, time after time, we still see many hockey players (especially those in the NHL) continue to practice this dangerous behavior.
Many argue that it was Sanderson’s carelessness (taking his helmet off before/during a fight) that was the cause of his injuries. The fact is, without the fight there is no taking off of the helmet; the act is as much to blame as the lack of equipment, as you can’t have one without the other—that and the fact that there were no rules in place to discourage players from taking their helmets off.
Many fans in the building the night that Sanderson played his last game felt that Sanderson may, in fact, have died on the ice—the picture was just that bad. The truth of the matter is that Sanderson’s injuries were so bad that even if Sanderson came around he would likely have emerged from his injuries a shadow of the man that he was.
In the end, Sanderson passed away three weeks after the incident, succumbing to injuries that were horrific to say the least. It was a sad moment in hockey, a sad moment for Sanderson’s family and teammates, and a moment that many felt would change the landscape of the game of hockey, from the junior ranks right up to, and including, the NHL.
In an effort to control the number of fights and the severity of injuries that players receive during a fight, the Ontario Hockey League changed its rules last season to include that all players must keep their helmets on during fights, knuckles be damned.
The punishment for any player that takes off his helmet or elects to undo his chinstrap before or during an altercation is a game misconduct and an automatic one-game suspension. This is exactly the type of rule that the NHL should institute, yet, for reasons unknown, Commissioner Gary Bettman and Co. have neglected to do so.
The OHL’s insistence on a helmet rule is a step in the right direction and an acknowledgement that the players were, in fact, at risk of injury and possibly death if/when they crash their skulls onto the ice, which is often the case during a fight.
Shortly after Sanderson’s death the NHL debated on fighting and its place in today's game, as did almost every blogger, writer, and armchair hockey fan.
Some argued that fighting was the only means for players to get back at others for cheap shots and for running the league's top players. Across the table, non-traditionalists argued that fighting in hockey was obsolete and, in some people’s minds, an unnecessary evil that needs to be abolished completely.
Hockey purists use words like “code” and “legacy” to describe why fighting is still important to hockey, all the while knowing just how serious the outcome can be. Hockey allows “goons” and “vigilantes” to get away with actions that, in many cases, would be criminal acts on the streets.
Violence has always been a part of hockey; that said, there is a big difference in controlled violence within the sport of hockey and fighting for sport in hockey. Let’s face it, the NHL is the only professional sports league that celebrates penalties, much less fighting.
Many European hockey leagues frown upon fighting and take efforts to limit the amount of altercations that take place on the ice. The result of said actions is a massive reduction in fighting with little to no change in “dirty” play.
Want more proof? Try the Olympics. This winter every hockey fan from around the globe watched some of the best hockey ever played. There were highlight reel goals, great body checks, tremendous saves, and loads of passion. What the Olympics did lack, though, was fighting, and nobody missed it.
Many fans are attracted to fighting in hockey—some even go so far as to say if hockey abolished fighting, they would stay home. I would remind them that hockey is not the WWE, and if that’s what they are looking for, go see the WWE or a UFC event.
While many hockey fans can appreciate the retaliatory fight in which an enforcer reacts to a dirty play on a teammate, there is an increasing objection to what many refer to as the “staged fight,” in which an enforcer fights for the sake of fighting.
“Staged fights” are becoming more of an annoyance than entertainment and are the most dangerous. The majority of the time these fights have little to no impact on the game. In fact, these fights merely serve to stroke the egos of the “tough guys”—essentially keeping them employed—and to solicit the odd cheer from the fans.
Former NHLPA boss Paul Kelly suggested in February of 2009 that the NHL should not only look into adopting the OHL’s helmet rule, he also suggested that the NHL no longer needed the “staged fights,” stating, “...I am not so sure those are the fights we need to continue to have in the sport.” Smart guy!
Everyone acknowledges that fighting in hockey has historically been part of the game. That said, even in the 1970s (the era during which many NHL fans feel fighting was at its peak) there were never as many injuries to players, especially the kind of head trauma we see today.
So, what has changed in hockey that makes fighting such a dangerous occurrence?
Part of the problem is that today's hockey is played by players that were once thought to be the optimal size for a linebacker in football. It is not uncommon to see an enforcer that is listed a 6’3”, 225 pounds.
Add that to the fact that many of these enforcers train in boxing, mixed martial arts, and/or other fighting disciplines, and what you have is 20-30 NHL players that are players of mass destruction, machines on the ice that are more than capable of knocking the average player out with one punch (as the Philadelphia Flyers tough-guy Daniel Carcillo did this season to Washington Capitals forward Matt Bradley).
Hockey is not a sport for the faint of heart; this much we can all acknowledge. This season we all watched as, time after time, players were caught with their heads down, the victims of what have been referred to as “head shots”—where a player catches an unsuspecting opponent with a blindside hit, making contact with the opponent's head (usually with an elbow), and, in most incidents, knocking the player out and into a world of hell.
High sticks, slew-footing, undisciplined hits from behind, and fighting all combine to make hockey one of the most dangerous games on the planet. Every player that steps out onto the ice assumes a measure of risk—the question is when is enough “enough?”
Given the severity and consistency of blindside hits in the NHL this season, the league elected to fast-track new rules that would protect the players from said acts. Supplementary discipline and an increased effort to educate the players on the dangers of blindside hits are expected to bring the number of incidents down considerably with the long-term goal of eliminating these horrific acts from the game.
Why then, with all the evidence pointing to the death of an NHL player, has the NHL continually dragged its feet when it comes to taking measures to drastically decrease the number of fights in hockey, especially the staged variety in which a player can be fatally injured needlessly?
The real sin is that the NHL could reduce these incidents drastically by adopting rules that support the proper use of equipment like helmets, mouth guards, visors, and chin straps, yet it refuses.
Many in hockey circles felt that the Sanderson incident would force the NHL to take a closer look at fighting, which, in turn, should have caused the NHL to make some key rule changes in order to facilitate a safer working environment for the players.
Thus far, the NHL has done next to nothing, choosing instead to close its eyes to the inevitable—the death or disabling of an NHL hockey player due to fighting.
Fan 590 Radio personality Bob McCowan has suggested for years that an NHL player dying as a result of fighting is not a matter of “if” it will happen but rather “when” it will happen. I, for one, concur with Mr. McCowan’s findings, and it’s discouraging to know the NHL is doing nothing to stop it from happening.
Will the NHL ever abolish fighting completely? Probably not. What the NHL could and should do is make it tougher for players to engage in fighting, electing to suspend players who fight on a whim and/or without warrant.
If the NHL elects to keep fighting in the game, which is likely the case, the smartest thing to do would be to grandfather in some key pieces of equipment, which, in most instances, would discourage players from engaging in fighting.
Mandatory visors, mouth guards, and the proper use of helmet straps would protect players from many everyday injuries as well as deter enforcers from seeking to fight. The reality is when a player punches a helmet, it hurts; if the players are forced to keep them on, there will be fewer fights, especially those of the staged variety—end of story.
Let’s face it, chucking your fists into a visor or a helmet would discourage most enforcers from getting down and dirty with any frequency and, in turn, would encourage more teams to elect to keep these one-dimensional players off the roster, which, in my mind, is a good thing.
I mean, would anyone out there lose any sleep if Colton Orr was no longer in the NHL? I sure as hell wouldn’t!
Mouth guards and proper helmet use (doing the straps up properly and perhaps using the M11 helmets) would increase the odds of players surviving a bad hit and/or head contact with the ice. It’s a win-win.
The technology, knowledge, and rules are there for the NHL to see; it’s clear as day. All the NHL officials need to do is use their heads and enforce these changes, which, in time, will put an end to many injuries...
Don Sanderson did not die on the ice for nothing. His legacy should be getting hockey leagues around the world to acknowledge the dangers of fighting, which, in turn, should cause these leagues to take actions that will ensure the players are safe and well versed in the safety precautions they can take to ensure they live to play another game.
The fact the NHL has done nothing to protect the players in light of the Sanderson incident is both shocking and disappointing. In the end, it’s another example of the NHL waiting until it is too late to enforce/implement rule changes and, for that, the NHL should be ashamed.
To read more NHL news and notes check out my Web site at www.theslapshot.com .
Until next time,
Written By: Mark “The Hard Hitter” Ritter