With everything known about concussions and the risk to bare-knuckled fighters, Colton Orr, the tough guy for the Toronto Maple Leafs, makes a good test case for pro hockey’s willingness to protect its players from debilitating injury.
Two years ago, Mr. Orr suffered a serious concussion during a fight, and missed the rest of that season, and even part of last season. How many other concussions he has had is not known. It was taken for granted that fighters don’t need a concussion protocol.
His first fight of the new season – the 252nd of his career, including junior, according to hockeyfights.com – illustrated the dangers of his situation. He found himself up against a new breed of hockey superheavyweight, John Scott of Buffalo, 6’8’’ and 270 pounds. Mr. Orr may be 6’3’’ and 222 pounds, but his brain is no more damage-proof than that of the proverbial 98-pound weakling.
That was in game 2. In game 3, Mr. Orr fought Deryk Engelland of Pittsburgh, who in 2010 felled him with a clean blow to the jaw. Once again, Mr. Orr absorbed several direct blows to the head. “His head snapped back like a Pez dispenser,” the Pittsburgh announcer cried.
Some say it should be Mr. Orr’s choice; after all, he is earning roughly $1-million a season. But each time he fights, he makes the fans complicit in the risks to his health. They can’t help but cheer, and by cheering, they become participants in what we may one day look back on as a tragedy.
And then we will ask – why was he permitted, after all those fights and such a serious concussion, to continue playing? Why did no one intervene to protect him?
Everyone knows the risks to hockey’s designated fighters, especially those who, like Mr. Orr, have fought as many as 36 times in one pro season. The excuse of ignorance is gone.
We know about the painful decline of retired athletes with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. We know that hockey fighters Reg Fleming and Bob Probert suffered from CTE, a degenerative disease linked to depression, preventable dementia and suicide. Mr. Fleming and Mr. Probert were not Pez dispensers. They had families who loved them.
We can’t be sure that hockey’s full-time fighters will develop CTE, but we know they’re at great risk. Should responsible hockey franchises allow them to continue after years and years of absorbing bare-knuckled blows? Money can’t buy a cure for what they are at risk of. Should the choice be theirs?