When the Toronto Maple Leafs demoted their toughest fighter, Colton Orr, to the minor leagues this week, it was great news for hockey: Players who can only fight, not play, are on their way out.
But in the world according to Brian Burke, the Leafs’ outspoken general manager, it was a sad day. It’s the Colton Orrs, he said, who hold the “rats” accountable for “cheap shots” – elbows to the head, hits from behind into the boards. Without Mr. Orr and his fearsome ilk on patrol, the job is left to the National Hockey League’s official disciplinarian, Brendan Shanahan. So lacking are the “rats” in fear of on-ice retribution, says Mr. Burke, that a lineup of wrongdoers has formed outside Mr. Shanahan’s door to await punishment.
Mr. Burke, with a few spicy words, expressed the inverted logic shared by many of the NHL’s executives, players and hockey-panel toadies: Fighters keep the game safe.
Here is something he didn’t mention: Colton Orr suffered a serious concussion last season, smashing his head on the ice in a fight with 230-pound George Parros. Medical imaging tests revealed brain trauma. In an earlier fight last season, he suffered an apparent concussion and did not miss a single game. Who keeps the game safe for Colton Orr?
It is morally bankrupt to ask Colton Orr ever to fight again. After 99 NHL fights, he is at heightened risk of lifelong brain damage.
Dirty play is not new. When Mr. Burke was the league’s disciplinarian some years ago, stick-swinging was a big problem. In the Colton Orr era, deliberate head shots were often delivered in the presence of fighters. Is Mr. Burke saying those who do such things should be left in the game so they can be beaten up?
Accountability should rest with the league, not with Colton Orr. The league, not Colton Orr, got rid of stick-swinging. The league, not Colton Orr, purged other evils – high-sticks to the face, slashes that broke forearms.
Mr. Shanahan and the league need to rise to the occasion – in Mr. Burke’s lexicon, to show some character. What about a 10-game ban for a first deliberate head-shot offence, 40 for a second, a season for a third? Isn’t that more accountability than a punch from Colton Orr?
Hockey should not ask Colton Orr to pay the price – in head shots, and brain damage – of ridding the game of head shots, and brain damage.