It will soon be 40 years since he took on the status quo in hockey.
Roy McMurtry, a former attorney-general of Ontario, will turn 80 this spring, the dark, wavy hair now whitened but the sleepy eyes, the easy laugh and the big, rolling shoulders not changed at all since they tagged him “Attorney-General McTurkey” in Philadelphia and the head of the NHL told him to butt out and mind his own business.
McMurtry took on the job as “top cop” in the Ontario cabinet in 1975, the year after his brother, William, who died five years ago, delivered his famous report on violence in minor hockey.
The concern back then was assault and bench-clearing brawls. It may be the word “concussion” never appeared on the sports pages back then, but the concern for player safety and public impression was not that far removed from today’s rising concerns.
The provincial government of the day asked Bill McMurtry to investigate violence following a number of incidents, key among them a decision by one junior team to withdraw from a championship series out of fear. He was asked to examine the “causes” of such violence at the lower levels and concluded that the No. 1 cause was the influence of the NHL and the use of violence as a tactical instrument, most dramatically illustrated by the rising success of the “Broad Street Bullies” Philadelphia Flyers, who won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975.
There was outrage – including many in the media – over the audacity of anyone thinking professional hockey could not police itself. Bill McMurtry prevailed, however, concluding that “the evidence was clear and overwhelming that the conduct and standards applied in the National Hockey League were having a profound effect on virtually every boy playing amateur hockey in every league regardless of age or standard of competition.”
NHL president Clarence Campbell promptly dismissed the report as “a product of the Commissioner’s imagination.”
When Roy McMurtry became attorney-general months later, he said he would take his brother’s report to heart. He warned the two main leagues, NHL and World Hockey Association, that police would watch any games played in Ontario. There was nothing wrong with using physical force in a tough game – both McMurtrys had played competitive hockey and Roy had been good enough in football to be offered a CFL tryout – but “inappropriate violence” was unacceptable.
It didn’t take long for action. First charged was Dan Maloney of the Detroit Red Wings for repeatedly banging the head of an unconscious Toronto player, Brian Glennie, against the ice. Maloney was acquitted. Months later, the Flyers came to Toronto and set a playoff record for penalties, leading to four Philadelphia players being charged. McMurtry was vilified in Philadelphia, the district attorney even accusing him of “a clear perversion of the office in which he sits.” All four players pleaded guilty, though punishment was light.
Coincidence or not, there are no longer bench-clearing brawls. The NHL acted strongly and effectively to end them. Change is possible, even when it comes reluctantly.
It comes as no surprise, then, that some of those who have been long working to bring an end to head shots and fighting in professional hockey – and consequently an end to those concussions that can indeed be prevented – have been coming to Roy McMurtry for advice. He gives it freely and with encouragement: stick to it, even when they ridicule you.
“The fact of the matter is,” McMurtry says from the downtown law office he still comes to daily, “that it hasn’t been a concern when it should have been at the highest levels of sport.”
In large part, this is because “we didn’t know.” In another part, it is because we don’t want to know. But the scientific evidence is surely irrefutable, he says, not to mention the obvious evidence that many of the best players in the world are no longer able to play because of brain injuries that are, to a significant extent, preventable. It is a cultural change that is required, he says, one that goes from the highest levels of the game to minor hockey – “but we shouldn’t be intimidated by that.”
Just as there was concern four decades ago that the level of violence in the game was causing young players and their parents to reconsider the sport, the level of injury in the game today is having the same effect.
Society can change and society can demand change, McMurtry believes, and he points to “the cigarette manufacturers who said for years there was no problem with smoking.”
That change is necessary, he says, because the points in his brother’s summary are as strong today as they were in 1974: “ Sport, and particularly hockey, need not be a symptom of a sick society. Hockey can be an effective instrument to improve the social conditions. Hockey can be a positive educational force, a model, to instill values such as co-operation, personal discipline, tolerance and understanding.”
“Look,” says the man who took professional hockey to court over violence, “if the NHL played on some other planet I wouldn’t care less what they do to each other. But they don’t play on another planet and everything they do has an influence on every youngster who plays the game.”