They got together in Minnesota in the summer of 2010 for some skating, some gym time, but mostly to work on their punching skills.
The level of familiarity was such that there was no need to talk business, Still, Calgary Flames forward Tim Jackman has fond memories of his sessions with fellow NHLers John Scott and Derek Boogaard, then members of the Minnesota Wild – all of them part of a smallish, pugilistically inclined hockey fraternity.
Mr. Boogaard’s death earlier this year at age 28, and new revelations he suffered from a degenerative brain condition related to Alzheimer’s, don’t constitute much of a deterrent for Mr. Jackman and others like him in the game. In fact, nearly every current player interviewed by The Globe and Mail on Tuesday feels fighting should still be a part of hockey.
“Obviously, it’s scary,” Mr. Jackman said of Mr. Boogaard’s fate. “It’s a physical sport. It’s our choice to play it … it’s kind of the price that we pay to play in this league,” said the 30-year-old, who has fought seven times in 26 games this season and 29 times dating back to 2009.
That’s not to say Mr. Jackman isn’t confronting some thorny questions. “Hopefully, I don’t have anything wrong with my brain,” he said.
The idea that the dangers of the job are understood and accepted is a recurring theme when you speak to NHL players who earn their living by dint of physical play and fighting.
When rough-hewn forward Derek Dorsett of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who has more fights (eight) than points (seven) this year, was asked if there is such as a thing as too high a price to pay for the NHL dream, he didn’t hesitate.
“No,” the 24-year-old native of Kindersley, Sask., said flatly. “There’s a lot worse things I could be doing. There’s risks in every job, my brother works in an oil field with heavy machinery, there’s risks doing that. … I love what I do, I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Which is really the nub of the issue: Those who typically face the greatest perils are more than happy to accept basically any risk to make the big-time.
As rambunctious New Jersey Devils forward David Clarkson, who leads his team in penalty minutes, said: “I wouldn’t be in the league if I didn’t play that type of style.”
There seems to be little in the way of spontaneous discussion in the league’s dressing rooms about Mr. Boogaard’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy diagnosis – part of that stems from the fact NHL players typically can’t afford to look beyond the here and now. (Mr. Jackman, Mr. Clarkson and Mr. Dorsett each had games to prepare for on Tuesday night.)
Another common theme is “this-won’t-happen-to-me-ism,” which may reflect generational factors more than anything else – these are, after all, men in the full impregnability of youth.
Winnipeg Jets tough guy Tanner Glass – whose father taught him how to fight at a young age – says the revelations about Mr. Boogaard don’t worry him.
“I feel like I can take it,” he said, “it’s just the way I feel, maybe it’s not the brightest way to think right now.”
Perhaps Mr. Glass’s thinking will change when his playing days are over. Former NHL defenceman Denis Gauthier, an occasional fighter who estimates he suffered more than a dozen concussions, said in a recent interview that “we’re character guys, so we say we consent, but do we really?
“I didn’t care about the consequences when I was a kid, but now I have three kids and I really want to be around for them,” said Mr. Gauthier, who retired two years ago after 12 years in the NHL. “Would I do it again knowing what I do now? Probably. But my mentality would be completely different.”
Increased attention on brain trauma in sport is a growing source of concern in hockey – it’s an issue that has affected most if not all NHLers at one point or another in their hockey lives.
“Head injuries are something we have to take very seriously as athletes, not just in our sport, but other sports as well. It’s a serious issue, as professionals we can’t be putting each other in jeopardy,” said Montreal Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges, who has suffered concussions.
Mr. Gorges first encountered the 6-foot-8 Mr. Boogaard as a rookie with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League – even then the latter was a larger-than-life character, figuratively and literally.
As Kelowna’s goalie covered a puck with players milling, Mr. Gorges reflexively spun and whacked the guy closest to him.
“I didn’t even know who it was, then you look up, and up, and [Mr. Boogaard]grabbed on to me. Thank God my defence partner … jumped in the middle and said, ‘Leave him alone, he’s only 16.’ And [Mr. Boogaard]said, ‘Then he shouldn’t be in the league,’” Mr. Gorges said. “He was serious – he was a tough, tough guy who did his job well.”
Like it or not, it’s a job for which there is still healthy demand in the NHL.
Some players, like Mr. Jackman and Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey, echoed the league office’s position that science has yet to establish a conclusive causal link between concussions and CTE.
“It’s not cut and dry,” Mr. Hainsey said, referring to the medical research. “They made a very strong argument early on and I think they’ve backtracked off it now.”
Mr. Hainsey suggested the bigger issue is whether fighting at a young age is more of a problem than players in their 20s duking it out.
“It’s concerning, obviously,” he said, “but I don’t know the solution.”
With a report from Robert MacLeod in Toronto