Back in the mid-1990s, I was strolling through the stands at Madison Square Garden during a Rangers game when a puck flew into the stands and cracked against a nearby wall between levels of seats. I distinctly remember that it nearly struck the mother who was walking in front of me with her young son. The boy was upset that he had not reacted quickly enough to pick up the bouncing puck before someone else got it. The mother, on the other hand, was horrified by what might have happened to her or her son if either of them had been hit. Why wasn't there more protection for fans?
It was only a matter of inches and a matter of time. Surely with all the rock-hard frozen projectiles flying into the stands at close to 100 miles per hour, something horrible was bound to happen at an NHL game some evening. I discussed the issue with a colleague not long after the incident at the Garden, and we came to the conclusion that a protective netting—similar to the ones behind home plate in Major League Baseball—was probably the only thing that could prevent the inevitable traumatic injury. Of course, we knew that any kind of glass or netting would detract from the aesthetic of the game. The speed, power and, yes, violence of hockey can be appreciated on television, but the game can only be felt from an up-close perspective, something that a protective netting would detract from. The NHL would only react if it had to, we figured, under circumstances we didn't want to imagine or discuss.
Sadly, our hypothetical scenario became reality after a teenage fan was struck in the head by a deflected puck in Columbus at a Blue Jackets game in 2002. The nets went up the next season.
I was reminded of this when I saw the video of Canadiens enforcer George Parros whacking his head on the ice during a fight with the Maple Leafs Colton Orr on Oct. 1. Parros suffered a concussion and missed a month of action. Fighting, of course, didn't go anywhere. It has been a part of hockey's culture, ethos and aesthetic from the beginning—the NHL formally adopted a five-minute penalty for "fisticuffs" in 1922, just five years after the league's founding. Traditionally, fighting has been seen by players and fans hockey's ultimate deterrent, a way to force miscreants to answer for their mischief. Enforcers, according to this logic, keep the peace in the game by enacting war. Take fighting away, and there could be more stick infractions and irresponsible play.
But leave it in, and something terrible may happen. Though the league has taken significant steps to curtail headshots through its vigilant Department of Player Safety, fighting has somehow escaped scrutiny. The act of deliberately punching a willing combatant in the head is punishable only by a five-minute penalty. Fighting is certainly a popular part of the game and, many players insist it is essential. But the consequences are undeniable.
Players today are bigger than ever and so is the ability to do damage with punches. Consider boxing: The percentage of bouts ending in knockouts increases with weight class, from the flyweights to the heavyweights. Bigger, stronger—more dangerous.
Change can be a long time coming. For years there was a slow crawl to implementing mandatory helmet use in the NHL, even after the death of North Stars' center Bill Masterton, who died after hitting his head on the ice in a game against the Oakland Seals in 1968. Nine years later, Sabres forward Rick Martin went into convulsions after he fell backward and hit his head on the ice. (After Martin was killed in a car accident at age 59, doctors discovered that his brain showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked to head trauma.) The voluntary use of helmets increased dramatically after such a vivid sight, but it still took two seasons after Martin's accident before helmets became mandatory— albeit with a grandfathered option granted to active players.
When Rangers defenseman Marc Staal took a puck in the eye last season, the debate about making visors mandatory intensified. The league adopted the rule during the off-season after players voted in favor of mandatory visors in June. Though numbers weren't released, former NHL defenseman Mathieu Schneider, now a special assistant for the NHLPA, said that the majority of players in favor of the rule change was significant. The scary nature of Staal's injury resonated.
The role of brawling and head trauma in the 2011 deaths of enforcers Wade Belak, Derrick Boogaard and Rick Rypien is unknown, but the fact that all three died within a span of four months nevertheless opened a discussion about banning fighting altogether. That discussion continues, of course, but the NHL has not yet taken action.
As we saw with the injury last month to Parros, it may not even be a punch that fatally injures somebody, but rather a head hitting the ice or the sideboards. Don Sanderson was a player with the Whitby Dunlops in the Ontario Senior Hockey League when died after hitting his head on the ice in a fight in 2009. Should such an incident occur at an NHL game, hockey's tolerance of fighting will be open for constant review by those in and out of the game. Law enforcement, which has largely steered clear of violent incidents between opponents at sporting events, may even get involved. The jurisdiction over how players police themselves may forever be taken out of the league's hands.
Without fighting, the game's traditionalists argue, dirty players who swing sticks and hunt for kneecaps wouldn't be held accountable for their misconduct. Perhaps, but the prospect of brawling never stopped players such as Ken Linseman, Claude Lemieux, Ulf Samuelsson and Sean Avery from playing dirty.
Some thought fighting would die out when the league instituted new obstruction rules after the 2004--05 lockout. The Red Wings have largely gone without an enforcer since then, preferring to answer an opponent's dirty tricks with a strong power play. When Brian Burke was Ducks' GM, on the other hand, he insisted that Anaheim maintain the capacity to scrap, if needed. Both teams won titles, the Ducks in '07, Detroit in '08, proving that either philosophy could be successful. Fights went up and down for the next few years—from 466 in '05--06, to 734 in '08--09, to 546 during the last full season in 2011--12—as everybody settled into the right way to be successful in the new era of hockey.
Steve Yzerman and Jim Rutherford, the general managers of the Lightning and the Hurricanes, respectively, have recently spoken out in favor of eliminating fighting. They are still in the minority and are likely to remain so until something happens to force the NHL's hand. But that day may be closer than we think.