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Enough talk about hockey violence, time for action

Good grief - how complicated do they want to make this?

First, we're going to have a summer summit on the burning issue. Now, they want a royal commission.

And all to do with something that can be fixed in the snap of a finger - or, more accurately, the raising of a few hands by those who have been putting the obvious off now for at least a century.

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The New Democratic Party - one of several groups stranded on Parliament Hill with nothing else to do - wants a royal commission on violence in sports, all sports, in order to ensure that, from now on, Patrice Cormier only raises his elbows to see if he needs more deodorant.

How can it be, NDP sports critic Glenn Thibeault asks in reference to Cormier's recent hit on Mikael Tam in a Quebec junior hockey match, that "a savage attack which would result in charges of aggravated assault anywhere else warrants nothing but a few game suspensions?"

Good question - but hardly new.

"We are talking," adds the NDP's Thomas Mulcair, "about gratuitous, pointless, dangerous violence that is increasingly found in our national sport."

Good point - but also far from new.

It is 106 years since John Ross Robertson, the head of the Ontario Hockey Association called for "a halt to slashing and slugging … before we have to call in a coroner."

The coroner got that call a few years later (1907), when Owen (Bud) McCourt was killed by a head blow from a hockey stick.

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An inquiry called for laws that would "severely punish" those involved in such foul play - but, of course, nothing ever came of it.

The history of politicians getting involved in cleaning up any sport is not a story of much success.

The one effective political initiative also dates back more than a century, when U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt called two conferences on increasing violence in football, and put an end to such tactics as "gang tackles" that were severely injuring and even killing players.

In Canada, there have been numerous attempts to have an outside force do something about hockey violence. Ontario held a royal commission back in the early 1970s that went nowhere. And courts have been involved in Ontario and, more recently, in British Columbia, following public outrage over on-ice violence. (The slaps on the wrist were so pitiful that even the player who went to jail in Ontario for an hour of so, Dino Ciccarelli, called the whole thing utterly "ridiculous.")

Nor is the NDP idea particularly new to Parliament Hill. Just over a decade ago, Then-Toronto MP John Nunziata considered going with a private member's bill to help bring an end to violence in the NHL.

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"Mr. Speaker," the Independent MP asked one day in the House, "fighting is illegal in Canada. It's a criminal offence whether it's taking place on a street corner or in an NHL rink. Why is it then that we seem to have two standards of justice? Why is the NHL above the law?"

Nothing, of course, came of this, either.

There have even been times when players themselves have tried to do something about rising violence in the game. Bobby Hull tried when he played for the Winnipeg Jets of the old World Hockey Association and got nowhere. Ten years ago, star American player Mike Modano posed a question on the cover of The Hockey News: "Do we have to wait for someone to be killed or paralyzed?"

If there is any hopeful difference between then and now it is that the recent Cormier elbow seems to have jarred even the traditionalists into asking precisely that question. And it may be causing a bit of sea change in attitude: the hidebound willing, finally, to question their own previous stances.

Long before Hockey Canada can hold its summit this summer, and long, long, long before any hugely expensive royal commission would table a report that would instantly be forgotten, the general managers of the NHL are scheduled to meet after the 2010 Olympic break and discuss, once again, shots to the head.

With respect, gentlemen, what's to discuss? The science is in; the public opinion vote is in; it is time for decisive action in bringing an end to head shots of any sort.

Those who say it's wrong to fiddle with the rules of a great game know nothing of the game's history. Rules are changed all the time: consider overtime, shootouts, the putting in and taking out of the red line, switching definitions of offside, the instigator rule …

Brand-new rules have even been applied to accidental "infractions" - as in an accidental high stick or a defenceman accidentally clearing the puck over the glass.

No need for a summit, certainly no need for a royal commission. But a need for action, now.

With a report from Gloria Galloway

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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