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Our special contributor, Dean Pennington of TBIV.net take a look at fighting in the NHL.
The NHL finds itself in much the same predicament as the NFL. How does a physical sport protect the heads of its players without changing the game too dramatically? Brendan Shanahan and the rest of his team in the NHL disciplinary office have gotten creative with their enforcement of Rule 48, but the debate over whether or not fighting has a place in the game rages on.
On Sunday, the Boston Globe’s Chris Gasper called for a fighting ban in the NHL, claiming that fighting contributes to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Gasper compares the fate of ex-goons Wade Belak and Rick Rypien, each of which apparently committed suicide, to confirmed NFL CTE sufferers Junior Seau and Ray Easterling. With all due respect to Gasper, a columnist and radio personality whom I enjoy tremendously, there are some obvious flaws in his formula.
For starters, Junior Seau and Ray Easterling didn’t ask to be hit in the head repeatedly. While you could argue that they understood the risks when opting for a career in the NFL, you don’t expect to be dealt brain damage playing football. Since the days when Seau was in his prime, perception around the NFL has changed. Helmet technology continues to evolve in an effort to better protect the heads of players. Helmet-to-helmet hits are heavily penalized, as are intentional hits to the head regardless of the situation. The NFL has hired doctors, specialists, neurosurgeons et al to consult and instruct the league on the best way to solve this problem. Clearly, the NFL understands that this is not part of their game and has taken steps to eliminate it. To compare the plight of two NFL defensive backs to hockey players like Shawn Thornton is unfair and shortsighted. Gasper is clearly tugging at the heartstrings of fans, appealing to their sense of morality rather than their common sense.
Shawn Thornton is paid to fight and is a fighter by choice. He isn’t diving into a pile, unintentionally slamming his helmet off of the helmets of others. He isn’t throwing himself at incoming running backs or wide receivers and unintentionally getting his head tossed around. Thornton’s role in the NHL is akin to that of a boxer. If he woke up tomorrow and decided that he didn’t want to throw another punch in the NHL, then he would still be a hockey player. Whether or not he would remain in the NHL is another story, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Shawn Thornton has a job because he knows how to drop the gloves. Same goes for John Scott, Zenon Konopka, Krys Barch, Brandon Prust, Jared Boll, Derek Dorsett and countless others. Derek Boogaard was a fighter and nothing more. He wasn’t a sniper, he didn’t focus his efforts on skating, or shooting or deking. He fought. That’s what he grew up doing and that’s what he chose to do when he made it to the NHL. Yes, Boogaard had CTE and, yes, CTE contributed to his death. There is no arguing that. The reality is that most or all of the guys listed above, and plenty of others not listed, likely have signs of CTE. Don’t misinterpret the sentiment; Boogaard’s death was a terrible tragedy, but to call it a “wake up call” for the NHL is an overstatement.
Why is that the NHL’s problem? Why should hockey fans feel bad for these guys when they can stop throwing down whenever they choose? Tobacco companies haven’t removed the chemicals from their cigarettes because they carry the risk of lung cancer. The reason why? Because people choose to smoke even after being made aware of the risks. By all accounts, Shawn Thornton is a bright person. He’s very articulate and well spoken and is regarded as one of the “nicer” enforcers in the NHL. He does it the right way, never cheapshotting and always giving a pat to his opponent’s shoulder following a fight. Don’t you think Thornton knows being hit in the face hundreds of times per year isn’t good for your health? It isn’t up to the league to protect Thornton and the rest of the NHL’s enforcers from head trauma. It’s up to the enforcers. While the role of the enforcer has become a necessary evil in the NHL, it’s still a choice made by the people dropping the gloves.
The connection between fighting in hockey and CTE is foggy at best. Boston University’s Robert A. Stern, a neuropsychologist, warned against “knee-jerk policy changes” based on the current, inconclusive data. It’s becoming clear that repeated blows to the head is a risk factor for CTE, yet fights only account for 8-10% of concussions in the NHL. What that means is that 90% or more of the concussions suffered by hockey players are due to reasons other than fighting. Cheap shots, pucks to the face, hits against the boards, you name it. When the NHL eliminates fighting and only sees a negligible drop in concussions, what happens next? By eliminating fights and essentially eliminating the role of the “enforcer”, you’re taking away the self-policing nature of the game and opening the door for more headhunters, like Raffi Torres, to tee off on the league’s superstars. What Gasper fails to realize is there exists a vicious cycle that will not be broken by eliminating fights. Fights are the least of the league’s concerns. Fighters have the ability to protect themselves and choose when to drop the gloves or when to skate away. Players like Marc Savard and Sidney Crosby, concussion victims who never saw the hits coming, don’t have that luxury. If you eliminate fighting, you have to eliminate hits, right? Hits are inherently more dangerous and result in many, many more concussions than fights do. Take Thornton for example; it took 127 career fights before he sustained his first concussion. The league has done plenty to reduce the number of concussions; implementing a “quiet room” at the advice of leading neuroscientists, modifying Rule 48, enforcing it consistently and calling for the reform of some of the league’s worst offenders. They handed Torres a 25 game suspension for his headshot on Marian Hossa. Sean Avery is out of the league. Matt Cooke is legitimately a different player since his indiscretions. The policy changes are working, albeit slowly.
The NHL continues to do the right thing when it comes to concussion control but the results haven’t been as promising as they may have hoped. Concussions continue to trend upward, but not as a result of fighting. The league’s current list of concussed players tells the story:
Steve Montador: Took an errant elbow to the head, was cleared to play and suffered another concussion in practice on January 12th.
Michael Sauer: Hit against the boards by Dion Phaneuf thirteen months ago.
Chris Pronger: Three separate hits, and zero fights, all contributed to the concussion that has likely ended his career.
Gabriel Landeskog: Hit in the head by San Jose’s Brad Stuart on January 23rd. Hasn’t played since.
With the exception of Thornton, there is not a single player in the NHL currently concussed from the result of a fight. Fighting isn’t the issue and Thornton’s injury was the exception, not the rule. Fighters fight, that’s what they get paid to do. Finesse skaters like Savard, Landeskog or Crosby don’t. Admit it or not, the enforcers police the game and serve a purpose. Until Gasper or whoever else can come up with concrete evidence showing that fighting is the problem in the concussion-laden NHL, I refuse to call for an end to the fist-throwing. Like it or not, the enforcers are the ones who choose to sustain the brain damage. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s the truth. Thornton and all of the other fighters in the NHL know the risks and accept them; if their brains look like swiss cheese in thirty years it’s because they chose to fight. It’s not sad, it’s just reality. Boxers suffer much the same fate. The argument that in past generations, boxers and hockey players were unaware of the risks is a cop-out used to support eliminating fighting from our game. At no point in human history was it thought that repeated blows to the head were a safe way to make a living. CTE or no CTE, hockey players and boxers in years past had to know that waking up with blurred vision and headaches the morning after a fight wasn’t a sign of good health. Yet they fought on -- and so too should the NHL’s goons. I agree with Gasper and others that CTE is a major concern not only in hockey, but in all professional sports. But eliminating fighting is not the answer.
They choose to have it this way; to play with no concern for their health. If they were concerned about their heads and faces, they would keep the gloves on. It’s up to the players involved to make that decision, not the NHL.