All week long, the hockey world debated the question.
Does it really belong in the game?
The question, sadly, was whether entertaining the fans should be allowed – whether by a creative “spin-o-rama” in the shootout, or by an inspire-the-kids trick goal on a breakaway.
Meanwhile, a much larger question, the one hockey will most-assuredly have to answer one day, the question that was being asked from the sand beaches of Bali to the medial examination rooms of the Mayo Clinic, was once again being ignored, dismissed and even ridiculed.
Does fighting belong in hockey?
The larger question was raised, yet again, by an ugly incident that had occurred during what should have been a celebratory opening night in Montreal: Canadiens enforcer George Parros, in his second fight of the game against Colton Orr of the Toronto Maple Leafs, falling face-first onto the ice and being taken off by stretcher.
A half-world away, in Indonesia, hockey author and Prime Minister Stephen Harper waded in with a pointed comment that hockey “authorities have historically not taken their responsibility to try to keep the rough, rough part of the game within the rules.”
His warning was to the point: head shots, whether delivered by stick, elbow or fist, need to be taken out of the game or, increasingly, more and more youngsters will be taken out of the game by concerned parents.
“These are very serious issues,” the Prime Minister said, “and they do have to be taken seriously by the NHL and other sports bodies.”
Sadly, he felt compelled to add: “This debate is as old as the game itself.”
So it is, but it needs saying that a century ago the repercussions of concussion – still so little understood today – were unknown. Not only has the science changed, but society has also changed. The past cannot justify the present here.
Last Wednesday, science spoke up for itself. A conference on concussions in hockey held at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., called for a ban on fighting at all levels of the game.
Keynote speaker Ken Dryden, the Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender who has argued for years in favour of preventative action, put it perfectly when he said: “Science has responded to the game on the ice – now, it’s time for the game to respond to the science.”
While the hockey world has responded at the lower competitive levels, it remains a reality that fighting is not only part of the junior hockey culture but, in several jurisdictions, a component of its marketing. It is equally true that, despite all the talk to the contrary in recent years, the NHL still okays such absurdly “staged fights” as the one that sent 6-foot-5, 228-pound Parros crashing to the ice.
The Mayo Clinic group called for an end to fighting in 2010, and, of course, had no effect whatsoever.
There is, however, some positive movement in the league. General managers Steve Yzerman (Tampa Bay Lightning), Jim Rutherford (Carolina Hurricanes) and Ray Shero (Pittsburgh Penguins) have all recently called for tougher punishment for fighting. Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman told the Chicago Tribune this week that if the league is taking real steps to prevent concussions, it has “to do the same thing with the fighting aspect.”
And, rather more surprising, Colorado Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy, who had his own scuffles when playing goal, said: “I don’t believe fighting is important in our game.”
At the Mayo Clinic gathering, chief medical officer for USA Hockey Michael Stuart called for the higher levels of hockey to embrace and enforce stricter rules.
In this, Stuart is completely accurate, as currently the NHL has no penalty whatsoever for fighting. When the “punishment” is a five-minute major in which both players go off but the teams remain the same on the ice, then it can be fairly argued “majors” are a reward rather than a penalty in that players such as Parros and Orr submit them as proof of value come contract time.
Only a fool would suggest you can eliminate fighting completely in hockey – fights happen in baseball, basketball, football and likely bridge – but real penalties, including ejections and suspensions, would put an end to gratuitous scrapping overnight.
The NHL knows this. The NHL avoids this. Therefore, the only conclusion one can reasonably reach is the NHL approves of such fighting as part of the overall “entertainment package.”
The league has been spooked enough by concussion concerns – the research at Boston University, the early deaths of brawlers, the class-action suit in professional football – to move, even if slowly, on blows to the head delivered by other means.
Yet, as Dryden asked: “How does one argue against the fact that a blow from the shoulder or a blow from the elbow to the head generates one result, and a blow from the fist doesn’t?”
Only the league can answer that question.
It used to be argued fighting was a necessary safety valve, but that argument was rendered senseless by the role of the goon and the staged fight.
It has been argued enforcers police the game and protect star players, but the games has always had its own built-in “enforcers” who could do the job perfectly well if only given the necessary tools and orders.
They’re also called “officials.”
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