In 12 years at The Hockey News, I’ve made my position on fighting clear: hockey, and the NHL in particular, doesn’t do enough to curtail it. It can’t be banned any more than the NBA, NFL, MLB or any other professional league can stop people from punching each other about the face and head, but it can be regulated to a far greater degree. That’s not radical or treasonous, no matter how staunch the game’s traditionalists try making it out to be. The encouraging news is how far the debate has shifted. Where once I heard wisecracks from colleagues who’d make half-serious jokes about me fleeing press row when a fight broke out, I now have a steady stream of people (fans and media) saying essentially the same thing: “I used to love all kinds of fighting, but now I’m with you – I can’t get into the staged fights anymore.”
The evolution in attitude stems from two factors: first, the greater understanding we now have on the cerebral damage caused by repeated blows to the skull; and, the harrowing and occasionally tragic stories of enforcers (including the deaths of
Rick Rypien and
Wade Belak) that resonated with fans who had an emotional connection with them. (Now, you can say there’s no definitive link between fighting and the issues behind each of those deaths, and you’re right; but the court of public opinion doesn’t demand the same degree of proof as a court system. The optics of all three men passing within a four-month period in 2011 raised awareness of their stresses and the downside of the job.)
That’s the other heartening thing about where the fighting debate is headed: the direction is only one way. You don’t and won’t see any neurologist standing up in the future declaring they’ve changed their outlook and calling for a return to bare-knuckle combat. No, when people change their mind with this topic, it’s always someone who grew up loving any type of fighting coming to see the pointlessness of a good many tilts and the destruction wrought by them. Doing so doesn’t make you an effete elitist who wants hockey to become contact-free; it simply means you’re willing to listen to doctors and science when it comes to looking after the health of athletes.
Where does the debate go from here? Threats of multi-million-dollar legal actions from retired players suffering cognitive degeneration or a player dying on the ice will linger over the NHL and shape the way the league approaches fighting as part of its product. To that end, the notion of an automatic ejection has already been raised by NHL people of power (including Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman). This idea will increase in popularity as more fans wonder why, for instance, NHLers can fight more than once a night when a mixed martial arts fighter in the UFC must wait at least 90 days after they’ve been concussed in one of their battles before they’re cleared to compete again. Another area of concern is the role played by NHL team doctors in the care of players. Think about it: in boxing, the fight’s promoter doesn’t pay for and provide the doctor who examines fighters and pronounces them fit to participate. There’s a separation and independence there giving full power to the medical professional with no financial or emotional ties to the athlete. The same can’t be said for NHL team doctors, who are in the employ of each organization and thus are susceptible to pressure to keep athletes in the lineup – if not in practice, then in terms of optics. And as we’ve noted, optics matter. League commissioner Gary Bettman referenced this issue recently, so expect it to continue to be a point of debate. Likewise, expect the debate over fighting’s place in hockey to continue for as long as the game is played.
This feature appeared in the Dec. 8 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.