The human toll of fighting in the NHL

"I don't think people understand the nerves and the kind of mindset that fighters go through. I've stayed up nights not sleeping a wink because I know I'm going to fight someone the next day. It's one of those situations where it's not natural to go out and fight every day or to have that constant threat of a fight, even though it might not come. ... Some guys might not be able to sleep, and they take some stuff to help them sleep."

-Chicago Blackhawks defenceman John Scott, on the difficulty of an enforcer's life after the accidental substance abuse-caused death of Derek Boogaard.

Like many hockey fans, I love watching hockey fights. There's just something about seeing a guy from my favourite team stand up, drop the gloves, and start chucking knuckles with an opponent, whether it be in defence of a teammate, in the hopes of a momentum swing, as payback for a past grievance, or whatever else. It's just primal fun, and it's not uncommon to see the combatants tap each other on the back and skate off the ice with little damage aside from a few cuts or bruises. I could name a half dozen of the most memorable fights in Ottawa Senators history, including epic line brawls against the Philadelphia Flyers and Los Angeles Kings, and I can tell you that I was up and cheering for each one.

But recently, I've come to wonder whether the entertainment we get from watching a hockey fight is worth the costs associated with it.

On most teams in the NHL today, there are one or two players who regularly take blunt-force traumatic impacts directly into their face and head. We pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to do so, because it gives us momentary entertainment, and it doesn't look like they're much worse for wear--maybe they need a few stitches, but not much else is apparent. Of course, if we truly believe that, we're lying to ourselves; the serious injuries that result from these types of impacts are often hidden from plain sight, resulting from more and more damage accumulating inside the body.

The physical health of NHL fighters

Take, for instance, the case of the late Bob Probert. A fan favourite for his fighting prowess, Probert took part in (according to no fewer than 240 fights over the course of his 15-year NHL career, including pre-season, regular season, and post-season tilts. As good as he was at fighting, over the course of those fights Probert would have taken hundreds, perhaps over a thousand, of punches to the face and head.

Probert suffered a fatal heart attack at the young age of 45 after collapsing onboard a boat on Lake St. Clair. His brain was donated to science, and researchers at Boston University found that he suffered from a degenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE isn't like, say, heart disease of cancer; it doesn't kill people directly. It's a bit more like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease), in that it's a degenerative disease that is believed by most (not all, I should note) to slowly take its toll on those affected by leading to depression, memory loss, and symptoms of dementia.

Probert's widow Dani doesn't think fighting is what cause Probert's CTE, but instead has suggested it's the many bodychecks that hockey players take during a career. It is true that there isn't a definitive causal link between fighting and CTE, but fighting definitely increases your chance of sustaining head injury, and the more head injuries you suffer, the more at risk you are for CTE.

And although it's true that collisions outside of fighting can also cause the brain injuries that can lead to CTE, those collisions will usually fall into two categories: Either ones that are inevitable in a game featuring hulking 200-pound players skating around at incredible speeds on ice, or ones that should be very harshly penalized (like, say, a flying elbow to the head or a blindside hit to the head). Fighting is far from inevitable, and in my opinion should be more harshly penalized.

Reg Fleming is apparently the only other well-known hockey player to be found with CTE. He took part in 69 fights over his 11-year NHL career.


The fallacy of the free choice

A simple counter-argument to banning fighting could be, "Well, these are grown men, and they're choosing to fight. No one's forcing them to do so." Which misses the point, demonstrates flawed reasoning, and--I would argue--is incorrect, in a lot of cases.

The idea that adults are capable of, and regularly do, act in their own self-interest isn't something regulators typically abide by. Seatbelts are mandated by law. If they weren't, people would choose not to wear them, despite the fact that doing so is usually in our best interest. Even in hockey, were it not a rule that players must wear helmets, there would likely be some who'd choose not to; that doesn't mean we should let them make that choice. It's not worth it.

It also remains to be seen how much of a choice these people are making. Millions of dollars is enough to make a lot of people to a lot of things, and by allowing fighting, the NHL is supporting it. The league is culpable in allowing the enforcer to become a legitimate job in the NHL.

And while it's true that no one literally says players have to fight, that doesn't mean that they're not coerced into it. Most enforcers in the NHL today were once among the most skilled players on their teams; these are players who, in objective terms, are extremely good skaters who can usually make a good pass and take a good shot. But when competing against fellow elite talents, their skills don't look quite as apparent, so coaches and scouts let them know that if they're going anywhere in the league, they'll get there as enforcers. After investing much of their childhood and adolescence on becoming professional hockey players, these individuals aren't going to give up on the dream; if they have the size and strength, they'll become fighters, and if they don't, they'll toil for some time in minor leagues before moving on to other things.

I look at the case of Matt Carkner to realize what players will do to make the NHL. Although he has been a fighter, or at least has fought, for much of his career, it was never his main responsibility before he joined the NHL. So anxious was Carkner to make the NHL that for the Ottawa Senators' 2008 training camp, he tried out as a right winger and pretty much strictly an enforcer. Since then, Carkner has developed his skills and can actually be a solid 5-6-7 defenceman in the NHL even without fighting, but he's now known as fighter. Can he shake that label and become respected as something more? Who knows.


The mental challenge of fighting in the NHL

As evidenced in the quote from Scott at the top of the page, having to be an enforcer in the NHL has a mental toll as well as the physical one. Although Scott said he didn't think that  "nerves" were necessarily the "main factor" in Boogaard's struggles with substance abuse, he did suggest it may have been one factor.

Boogaard enrolled in the NHLPA's substance-abuse program before his passing to try and wrest control from his problem, but ultimately wasn't able to. Brian McGrattan also self-enlisted into the program, although we're not privy to the substances or the causes that drove him to abuse them; we do know, however, that McGrattan is among the league's most menacing enforcers. Probert, too, had a storied history with substance abuse, both drugs and alcohol. Others known to have entered the NHLPA substance abuse program include Ken Daneyko (123 NHL fights), Brantt Myhres (58 NHL fights), and Jordin Tootoo (64 career fights).

Of course, it's not just fighters who join the NHL substance abuse program; although the PA doesn't release a substantive list, lists of known participants include Kevin Stevens, Ed Belfour, and Theo Fleury, none of whom would be called fighters.

We don't know if anxiety caused by fighting is what drives these players to abuse the substances they've abused. But of the players known to have entered the substance abuse program, an inordinate number have been fighters. It may not be fighting that leads people to these things, and not all fighters will seek them, but there's a very real trend demonstrated here.


Scary on the ice, saintly off of it

It's also ironic to consider that, so often, the scariest players on the ice can be the nicest people off of it. Look at Boogaard, much loved in the cities of Minnesota and New York because of his off-ice contributions to them.

Other contemporary fighters loved in their communities include Chris Neil (who has recently become honourary chair for Roger's House), Zenon Konopka (who remains popular in Ottawa from his time with the 67s, and regularly does work with various charities), George Parros (well known for his charitable work), and even Matt Cooke (who, along with his wife Michelle, runs The Cooke Family Foundation of Hope).

Retired players including Rob Ray (247 career fights), Kris King (176 career NHL fights), and Dave Taylor (73 career fights) are all past recipients of the NHL Foundation Player Award, given to the player "who applies the core values of hockey—commitment, perseverance and teamwork—to enrich the lives of people in his community." Georges Laraque is becoming renowned for environmental activism, and committed significant time to helping Haiti recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake.

We nevertheless ask these people to make massive sacrifices to their mental and physical health purely for our entertainment.


What should the NHL do about it

If others, like me, come to the conclusion that a couple minutes of hockey fights simply isn't worth it, then we need to look at what we can do about reducing the frequency of fighting in the league, and reducing the number of players who join the league strictly as enforcers. The first and most obvious step is harsher penalties for fights.

Although the Olympics and US College hockey are vastly different from NHL hockey, play at those levels is evidence that if strict penalties are placed on fighting, fighting will decline. Were the NHL to make the penalty for fighting a five-minute major plus a game misconduct, staged fights--which even the most ardent supporter of fighting would likely agree are meaningless and unnecessary--should decrease. Add the caveat that, should the fight happen in the final 10 minutes of the game, that ejection carries forward to the next game, and say (for good measure) that they team can't dress anyone in your place if you fight and we're making progress at eliminating most of the fights we see in the NHL today.

Of course, some fights today (although I would argue the minority) are ones where players are policing themselves, exacting vigilante justice for some real or perceived slight on a teammate. This shouldn't be; players shouldn't have to police themselves, because that's what the referees and the discipline department are for. Were the game called properly, there would be no reason for self-policing among NHL players. Preventable headshots across the league need to be properly addressed, and there don't seem to be any headshots more preventable than those that happen in NHL fights.



Will stricter penalties get rid of fighting in hockey? Of course not, or at least not right away. But they'll decrease the frequency with which players drop their gloves, and they'll make players think twice before doing so. Those who don't have the skills to play in the "new new NHL" will, hopefully, find a new profession, while those who do will enjoy a much more meaningful and, more importantly, a safer game.

People enjoy watching fights. But that doesn't make them acceptable. I'm reminded of the recent Bruce Springsteen hit "The Wrestler," and it makes me wonder what we're doing to our beloved enforcers.

Then you've seen me, I come and stand at every door.
Then you've seen me, I always leave with less than I had before.
Then you've seen me, bet I can make you smile when the blood it hits the floor.
Tell me, friend, can you ask for anything more?
Tell me, can you ask for anything more?

What do you think the NHL should do about fighting?

Nothing, the game is fine as it is.207
Get rid of the instigator penalty, and leave everything else as it is.414
They should penalize fighting more harshly than they do today.175
They should do everything in their power to get it out of the game.178

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