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Brandon Prust of the New York Rangers and Jay Rosehill of the Toronto Maple Leafs fight during the first period at Madison Square Garden on Monday night. (Bruce Bennett/2011 Getty Images)
Brandon Prust of the New York Rangers and Jay Rosehill of the Toronto Maple Leafs fight during the first period at Madison Square Garden on Monday night. (Bruce Bennett/2011 Getty Images)

Roy MacGregor

The NHL continues to trade money for brain cells Add to ...

Okay, let’s haul that dead horse out once again. Time for yet another beating.

There’s no denying violence in hockey has fallen into the same oh-Lord-no-not-again pit that used to hold such worthy topics as proportional representation, climate change and voter turnout – but perhaps this time, just maybe, it will be different.

This week, as the NHL governors gather in Pebble Beach, Calif., to talk about realignment – hockey’s equivalent to proportional representation – The New York Times has delivered an explosive series on the life, times and death of hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard. Not only should the multimedia effort win the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize, but it has pumped a little life back into that poor horse some Canadian journalists have been pounding for years to little or no avail.

No longer, however, can this be dismissed as the bleats of the intellectual softies and snobs of the north who believe hockey should follow all other contact sports and put an end, as much as possible, to head shots and fighting.

The New York Times is a very different voice. It is not only heard, loud and clear, in New York, where NHL headquarters are located, but it speaks to those advertisers who may be a bit unsure of how much they wish to link themselves corporately to a sport that thinks bare-knuckle fistfights are part of the entertainment package.

An examination of Boogaard, who died last May at 28 from an accidental overdose of alcohol and painkiller, found he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the same degenerative brain condition found in an increasing number of deceased athletes whose heads received repeated blows. What the Times series does, apart from reporting the condition found in such a young man, is demonstrate how the hockey culture essentially creates and grooms an enforcer whose value to the team is found in his fists rather than his skates.

There is a long-standing belief that such goons are too dumb to realize what they are saying when they claim they are “just doing my job” and fail to understand the long-term implications.

It is worth pointing out, then, the league leader in fights last year, George Parros, is a Princeton University graduate – Sporting News named him the fourth smartest professional athlete in the world – who majored in economics and is an expert in labour disputes. As such, he knows better than anyone there is not likely another “job” he could find that would pay him $875,000 (U.S.) a year and roughly $5-million in his brief hockey “career.”

These young men willingly line up to become an NHL enforcer – fame, fortune and a fabulous pension – and will do so forever, so long as the league offers such pay and refuses to do anything to curb fighting.

No one in the sport seriously argues that fighting has any effect on the outcome of a game, but no one seriously expects, either, that fighting can be totally banned. It happens in baseball, basketball, football, soccer, likely in lawn bowling. Tempers have a tendency to flare, particularly where highly competitive young men are playing a contact sport.

What the NHL can do, however, is something that discourages fighting to a point where all but the unavoidable flare-ups will vanish.

“The issue is: do we increase the penalty?” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told the Times. “Because it is penalized now. And there doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming appetite or desire to go in that direction at this point in time.”

With respect, sir, you are wrong. There is NO penalty for fighting in the NHL and even to pretend otherwise is harmful to any fair debate on the topic.

If a fight breaks out, play stops, and once the fighting ceases the two combatants are sent to the box, after which play resumes exactly as it was prior to the whistle going. Where is the penalty here? The players are given “five-minute majors” which the league claims is a penalty, but how is it then, come contract time, those fighters table their “majors” the same as others table goals and assists.

(We can even table video proof of this: CBC’s The New Ice Age: A Year in the Life of the NHL in 1998 showed agent Don Meehan successfully comparing Tie Domi’s penalty minutes to sniper Sergei Berezin’s goals while gaining a $7.15-million contract from the Toronto Maple Leafs.)

Where, once again, is the penalty here?

Real penalties, however, are not only possible but long-since necessary.

Staged fighting – the sort of prearranged battles Boogaard and Parros often engage in – must be banned entirely, the penalties severe not only for the combatants but for coaches and teams, as well.

Spontaneous fights, which will still occur, must be given true penalties, with real consequences, which would have the effect of putting an end, forever, to the enforcer’s role and soon reduce the number of non-staged fights to levels found in other contact sports.

Until that happens, as Chris Nowinski, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, which examined Boogaard’s brain, so sharply put it, the NHL is in the business of “trading money for brain cells.”

And that is unacceptable.

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