A Call to Ban Hockey Fights

In Canada, kids pick up an ice hockey stick about the same time American kids pick up a Wiffle ball bat. They get their first pair of ice skates not long after they start walking. From Vancouver to Nova Scotia, Winnipeg to Yellowknife, hockey is the national sport of our northern neighbor.

So you can only imagine the guts it took for Jack Todd, the famous sports columnist writing in the Montreal Gazette, to suggest an outright ban on fighting in the National Hockey League (NHL). In his own words:

Enough is enough. It’s time to outlaw fighting in hockey, to put an end to the game’s goon culture for once and for all…. The toll fighting takes on the fighters is too great. The stress is too much, the constant pain, the accumulated affects of too many punches, too many painkillers, too much alcohol mixed with the painkillers.

The article comes on the heels of the death of 35-year-old Wade Belak, a former hockey enforcer who just retired in March. He committed suicide August 31, 2011, in a hotel room in Toronto, where he was preparing for a TV reality show called “Battle of the Blades.” Belak’s death has raised more questions about the possible effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—a degenerative brain disease linked with repeated hard hits. According to an article on MercuryNews.com:

“We’ll never know with any certainty when someone commits suicide whether CTE played a role,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, a prominent neurosurgeon who is co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University’s School of Medicine. “We do know CTE attacks the portion of the brain that controls functions of memory, emotion, addictive behavior and impulse control, the latter associated with suicide. And so we’re clear, in some cases the people involved may well have had emotional issues before its onset. But every time I read or hear about these tragedies, my first question is, ‘Did CTE play a role?’ “

Belak’s death was the third in this recent post-season. About two weeks earlier, 27-year-old Rick Rypien was found dead in his home. And four months before Belak killed himself, 28-year-old hockey player Derek Boogaard died from an accidental overdose of the narcotic painkiller oxycodone and alcohol. Dr. Cantu’s group is now studying Boogaard’s brain.

“There’s no way to know how much was damage caused by fighting as opposed to hits to the head sustained in the normal course of playing the game. Personally, though, I suspect it’s caused more by fighting,” Cantu said. “In my practice, when I’ve studied ‘enforcer-type’ guys and we discuss fights, they say roughly one in four times they get concussed. But they never bring it to the trainer’s attention. They just go to the box and try to recover enough to make it back to the bench when the penalty’s over. It’s the code. They’re afraid if they admit it, they’ll be out of a job.”

There are a growing number of people who believe that the deaths of these three young men should be a call to arms…or rather, a call to lay down arms. To remove fights from the hockey equation. To get rid of the goon squads.

On the other side of the proverbial table are the fight proponents, who believe that the passion of hockey requires that the passion be expressed in battle, and battering. But, as Jack Todd says, Football is also fast, passionate, and violent, but fighting is not allowed on the gridiron. And he continues:

As long as the NHL permits fighting, it will be a bit bushleague, with one skate in the big-time and the other firmly planted in roller derby. The league is growing up in the way it is beginning to deal in a meaningful way with concussions and the awful toll they take on its talent. (You need look no further than the probable end of Marc Savard’s career to know how serious the concussion issue is.)

Now it’s time to move on and to put an end to fighting. Call it the Wade Belak Rule if you like. If his death can help bring about an end to fighting in the NHL, then something good might come of what is otherwise a senseless, heartbending tragedy, the death of a father of two young girls at a time that should have been the prime of his life.

Here’s to the Wade Belak Rule. Let’s hope the owners, fans, and players find a way to make this happen.


To read the full article in the Gazette, click here:  The NHL must ban fighting

To read the full article on the MercuryNews.com, click here:  Questions linger over recent deaths of three NHL enforcers

To read the article about Wade Belak, click here:  Wade Belak Found Dead

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