Stu Grimson: My case for fighting in a dangerous game

Friday November 15th, 2013

Former enforcer Stu Grimson (32) says fighters are well aware of the risks inherent in what they do.
Craig Jones/Allsport/Getty Images

Predators radio broadcaster Stu Grimson spent 14 years in the NHL as one of the league's most feared enforcers. Nicknamed the Grim Reaper, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound winger fought more than 200 times in his career, serving 2,113 penalty minutes for eight teams. After his retirement in 2002, he earned a law degree at Memphis, and worked for the NHL Players' Association as an in-house counsel. He recently spoke to about the ongoing debate over the role of fighting in hockey. Does fighting still have a place in the game?

Stu Grimson: I believe it has a place in the game, but I am one who is open minded enough to say that the justification for keeping it may not be as a strong as it once was. When I was breaking into the game if you didn't have a guy like me, Bob Probert or Dave Brown on your roster and dressed [for the game], the other team played you differently. It would try to run you out of [the] rink. For your skill players, your smaller players, [the other team] would try to physically dominate those people. Guys like me held their side accountable. Again, there may or may be not be as strong a justification [for fighting] today. For me, that would probably be a good reason to, one, take steps to reduce it or, two, eliminate it altogether.

But my strongest point, the thing I feel most passionate about is this: For the sake of the guys who make their living that way, don't take fighting out. Frankly they'd rather you not. They step into that role, they do that job willingly, knowing and fully appreciating the risks. They're happy to earn a great living in a great game that way in spite of the potential for physical harm. When we lost Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien, how directly do you tie their deaths to fighting? Did their deaths hit close to home?

SG: They hit me hard in one way. I'm sympathetic to, and fond of, guys who played that role because I did. I understand what they go through and the challenges they face. On a purely emotional level, sure, I was as moved as anybody when that happened. The part that I found most difficult was that their deaths became a starting point to begin this discussion anew, suggesting, hey, the role is ugly and causes these horrific results. I resent that, frankly.

Wade Belak was an accidental death; Rick Rypien suffered from depression, going back to his teen years, before he ultimately took his life; Derek Boogaard chipped a tooth, for gosh sakes, and got addicted to painkillers years before he accidentally died of an overdose. I don't see the connection to the role itself. I don't know that this ever really needs to be part of the discussion about the broader, more specific issue: Does the role [of enforcer] have any place in the game anymore? That, for me, is a completely separate set of circumstances. If they did take fighting out of the game, do you think that players would adjust and maybe, out of respect for the game, not take a run at a Crosby, a Gretzky, a Sakic?

SG: It's really hard to say. It's difficult to quantify because you never know until you eliminate that element from the game. Keep in mind that even for those who argue in favor of an outright ban, you'd no longer have the typical heavyweight enforcer, but you'd still have guys who are capable of taking care of themselves and their teammates when the gloves hit the ice. So you'd still have that measure of accountability, in my estimation. And the issue that the game is mostly focused on, and rightly so, is that we need to eliminate head trauma, deliberate and reckless blows to unsuspecting vulnerable players. I think that's where the focus is best kept.

The NHL has three arrows in its quiver. One is supplemental discipline. If [NHL VP for player safety] Brendan Shanahan doesn't like what he sees, he can hand down a suspension. Number two is the one-ice official. You're always in fear of putting your team in jeopardy with a minor, a double minor, or a major penalty if you act up on the ice and deliver one of those deliberate blows. Number three is if you've got a Brian McGrattan, a Stu Grimson or a Bob Probert on your roster, the players on the other team who may be inclined to deliver a blow like that are probably thinking in the back of their heads, "I have to answer for this if I do it, so I ought to be careful."

SI.con: What about staged fighting? Should the league look into punishing certain fights more heavily than others?

SG: Attempting to ban the so-called staged fighting is a fool's errand, in my estimation. I think it's an impossible concept to define. The players are simply going to make the following adjustment: They will talk to one another on the draw and say, "Hey, you and I have to go at it for whatever reason sometime on this shift. Let's play 10 or 15 seconds, let's run into one another, let's drop our gloves and go." It doesn't look like a staged fight, but it's no less "staged" than two guys who, after the puck is dropped, stand back, dropp their gloves, pull off their chin straps and go at it in a contrived way. At the end of the day, this is an all-or-nothing proposition. If you want to eliminate fighting, then give a player a game misconduct for [fighting]. There is no middle ground in my estimation. What, specifically, makes today's game different from the one you played?

SG: The rule changes coming out of the 2004-05 lockout really contributed to the game changing in terms of its speed. When I played, it was very common for someone to put a stick on me and ride me back to the offensive zone, their defensive zone. Not so today. You can't get away with as much, and for that reason the game has opened up considerably. With abolition of the two-line pass, you can complete [a pass] that goes two-thirds the length of the ice, which is a nice development.

Athletes are bigger, stronger and faster today. That has to do with the evolution of science and nutrition. Guys have more at their disposal, coupled with the fact that athletes in our sport realize it's a year-round commitment. You don't just show up in training camp and play yourself into shape. Are we at the point where it may take a tragic incident to change the rules, the way it did when safety netting was added behind the goals after a fan was killed by a puck?

SG: I have no skin in the game anymore. You could eliminate fighting and I think hockey would [still] be a great game. I continue to believe that fighting, as an isolated and basic element in the game, still has a role. These guys understand the risks of what they do. They're the last people to say, "Please save us from ourselves." Frankly, they don't want that. To me, you start down a [dangerous] road if you do. You have to look at a lot of other activities in our society that have risk built into them: boxing, MMA, skydiving, for goodness sakes.

And there are other elements of the game where a player who is not involved in a fight is at risk. It's a hard surface. It's people moving at a high rate of speed. There's always a chance that something [bad] is going to happen. I think [player safety is] the wrong reason to eliminate fighting. Players accept the risk. But then you have Scott Niedermayer skating up the boards and Tie Domi, going the other way, decides to deliver a flying elbow. Scott Niedermayer did not accept the risk that Tie Domi was going to deliver a flying elbow completely removed from the play. Players don't accept that risk. That's offside, way offside. If I put the commissioner's or Brendan Shanahan's hat on you, what would you change about the game?

SG: Oh, gosh, one thing that has not matched pace with the evolution of the game is the protective headwear. To me, that is well worth the investment in time, energy, and money. I'm not saying this isn't ongoing, and maybe the technology eludes us, but given the size and speed of the players, we need more protection, given what we do.

I like some of the things they've done in terms of chin straps. Players shouldn't remove their helmets during a fight. I think that makes great sense. For the life of me, I can't understand why two people who are going to engage in a fight on the ice want to take their helmets off to begin with. To me, it's a recipe for disaster when one guy suffers a blow and goes down unconscious with a naked head on the ice. I've seen what happens when that happens. I like the change in that area if it can be enforced.

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