Hockey fans shouldn't be made a party to the brain damage of the fighters they love.
That's what they've been asked to do for years and years. But the difference today is that the league and the fans know the damage inflicted on the fighters they cheer for.
St. Louis Blues president John Davidson says the local fans have loved their fighters – brothers Bill, Bob and Barclay Plager, Kelly Chase, Tony Twist and Cam Janssen. And that love is exactly the point. Of course the fans love a player who wears his heart on his sleeve, who stands up for teammates, who is willing to take a beating for a principle (in hockey terms, anyway). But that was easy in the era when the Don Cherry view held sway: "Two good guys going at it. Nobody getting hurt," as he says on one of his best-selling Rock 'em, Sock 'em Hockey videos.
We now know that fighters get hurt. They get hurt in the worst way. Over time they accumulate so many concussions that they are at severe risk of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which can lead to depression and dementia.
Check out the picture that ran in Thursday's Globe or on the website (http://tgam.ca/Cxwz). The late Bob Probert is fighting Andrei Nazarov in 2001. There is a giant smear of blood on Mr. Probert's forehead, enough to have splattered Mr. Nazarov's jersey. After Mr. Probert's death from a heart attack, his brain was found, in a laboratory study, to be diseased with CTE. Nobody getting hurt?
Three hockey fighters died by their own hands this summer. One of them, Wade Belak, had said he'd never had a concussion. That shows how little attention has been paid to the brains of fighters. A retired fighter, Ryan VandenBussche, says he hid his many concussions. In plain sight, he might have added. If these athletes are truly loved, why does no one take care of their brains?
The Plager brothers – to take one of Mr. Davidson's examples – were more than just designated fighters, like those who today are paid to do almost nothing else. Barclay was a captain of the Blues. Today's fighters are paid a premium to turn their brains to mush.
The NHL shouldn't make the fans complicit in destroying the brains of the players they love. At a minimum, it should adopt an immediate protocol to give a dressing-room concussion checkup to anyone who takes a punch.
There will always be rock 'em in hockey, but the NHL needs to realize that the sock 'em is on its way out.