Today, it was announced that former player Wade Belak was found dead at the age of 35. His tragic passing is now the third of the offseason for the league.
Earlier this month, Jets forward Rick Rypien was found dead at his home in Alberta, while Derek Boogaard of the Rangers passed away in May. Each player was fondly remembered by friends and teammates, and their contributions will sorely be missed by their team and fans across the league.
With the most recent passing of Belak, however, a serious question has resurfaced: Should fighting be a part of the sport? While the argument to rid the game of the violent exchanges between tough guys has been around for a while, it has often been ignored or brushed aside.
Has the time finally come when a serious look at removing fighting from the game can no longer be avoided?
Fighting is the common thread among all three players whom the league has lost, and will surely be a hot topic during the upcoming season. With concussions another ongoing concern around the NHL, player safety has never been of higher priority. After all, it was a dangerous shoulder to the head that sidelined superstar Sidney Crosby, and has kept numerous other players from competing. So, if a shoulder to the head is regarded as dangerous and being eliminated, wouldn't a fist to the head do just as much damage?
In the wake of his death, Wade Belak is being described by his teammates and coaches as a happy, outgoing person, who always had a big smile on his face. The passing of Rick Rypien, however, was the result of another battle. The tough winger reportedly suffered from depression, a fight that kept him from playing professional hockey on numerous occasions. His struggle has brought light to the issue of player assistance, prompting discussion that the league should improve programs to help protect its players.
While both Belak and Rypien's deaths weren't directly caused by fighting, could removing bouts from the game be one of the major steps towards improving player protection? Don't forget that Derek Boogaard's season ended early as well, from a concussion sustained during a fight with Matt Carkner in December.
Still, there will always be fans that feel that fighting is an important part of the game and that a ban would only alter the entire aspect of the sport. The argument could be made that fighting isn't mandatory, and like in Boxing (or other violent sports), players choose to engage and could avoid it. The role of an enforcer contradicts the idea of "willing combatants" in a fight, so is the solution to maneuver around the use of enforcing?
How about a rule change instead? Could implementing a limit to the amount of fights a player can participate in before a mandatory suspension help lower the frequency yet maintain the edge to the sport?
No matter how you look at it, removing brawls and fist fights from the game would be difficult at best and potentially devastating to the game's popularity. The standing ovation two players get after an altercation, and the thunderous applause with each blow landed is a clear indication that fans find it wildly entertaining.
Would a game filled with emotion, hitting, and high levels of intensity be nearly as captivating if you knew that under no circumstances were players allowed to send a message, or stick up for a bullied teammate for fear of disciplinary action by the league?
And what about player safety?
Whether a player is remembered by his team as upbeat and happy or quiet and reserved, there is a common theme being shared. Fighting is extremely difficult both physically and mentally for the players that do it. So much so that the league has lost some of it's greatest personalities and toughest competitors this summer. For that reason alone, the question of fighting should be re-examined this year.
Should fighting be illegal? Is the game fine the way it is? Sound off below to share your thoughts.