CONTRIBUTED TO THE HOCKEY DEKELY BY MARCO DI MEO
The entire hockey community has now had a year to let some of the shock of last year’s off-season, which included the deaths of three NHL enforcers, wear off.
Derrick Boogaard of the New York Rangers died on May 13, 2011 at the age of 28 after a mixture of alcohol and drugs. On August 15, 2011, the recently signed Winnipeg Jets forward, Rick Rypien, lost his 10 year battle with depression and committed suicide. He was 27 years old. Wade Belak, who had just retired from the Nashville Predators, was found dead in his Toronto apartment at the age of 37. Police treated it as a suicide. His mother said that he was also suffering from depression.
Following these events, the NHL’s enforcer role started to be classified, as Jim Thomson calls it, “the worst job in sports.”
Thomson, a former enforcer for the Los Angeles Kings, has become a recent advocate for the removal of fighting from the game of hockey.
“They should eliminate headshots and eliminate fighting,” he said. “If two players choose to fight, they should be kicked out of the game – just like in football, basketball, or baseball. If there’s an instigator, then he gets a two-game suspension.”
As we approach the one-year anniversary for each of last summer’s tragedies, Thomson shares his thoughts on the three players’ battles with depression – a battle Thomson also fought, and won, during his playing career.
“You go through some very emotional, stressful moments,” Thomson said. “Most of your days are thinking about who you’re going to fight, how that fight’s going to go. Are you going to win? Are you going to lose? Are you going to lose your job? Many guys in that enforcer role deal with that differently. Obviously it’s been a tragic summer with the guys dying, and I had my struggles with drugs and alcohol dealing with the role of the enforcer. It’s probably the worst job in sports.”
Adam Proteau of the Hockey News also feels the NHL should crack down on fighting. He recently wrote a book entitled “Fighting the Good Fight: Why on-ice violence is killing hockey.” However, he takes a different approach than Thomson. Although he wants fighting out of the game, he doesn’t want it banned.
“I never use the term ‘ban fighting’ because I think that gives kind of the pro-fighting contingent a real easy way to squawk like a chicken and say, ‘Oh, you want to change hockey’,” Proteau said. “I never say ban it because I don’t think you can ban it anymore than you can ban fighting in any other sport. I mean, fights happen in baseball, fights happen in the NBA and the NFL. Sometimes guys will punch each other in a heated moment.”
“But I do think the fighting industry that’s been built up in the NHL needs to be dismantled. By that, I mean the goons – the guys that serve no other function but to punch each other in the head,” he added.
The role Proteau, and many other fans, refer to as the ‘goon’ defines a player whose ice time is usually less than five minutes a game; whose sole purpose on the team is to fight. His job is to either protect the skilled players from other ‘goons’ or to go out and fight in order to spark the team and give them momentum if he wins. Boogaard, Rypien, Belak, and Thomson all played this role.
This season, fighting is down. According to hockeyfights.com, there has been an average on 0.45 fights per game compared to last season’s 0.52. Last year, a report done by the NHL showed that fighting was the lowest cause of concussions at 8 per cent. The highest cause of concussions were ‘legal hits’ at 44 per cent.
On the other end of the spectrum, though, fighting in junior hockey is up this season. There is also a debate on whether fighting should be banned at the junior level as well. Milton Ice Hawks defenseman, C.J. Stellato, feels with fighting still legal in the NHL, there is no way you can ban it in the juniors.
“I don’t think fighting should be banned here. The same rules apply from the lowest level of hockey all the way to the NHL,” Stellato said. “How is a young player supposed to be ready for the NHL if he’s never experienced a fight in junior?”.
The Canadian Hockey League produces a steady amount of players for the NHL each year. Last season alone, 18 of the 30 players drafted in the first-round of the NHL entry draft came from the CHL. Fighting has become an issue for this league because players are now pre-staging fights.
Atom coach in the Greater Toronto Hockey League, Mark Armata, thinks the staged fights in junior should be taken out but not the fighting in general.
“The CHL recently took strong consideration into banning fighting. With social networking at an all-time high, players from any league have never had it so easy to communicate with one another,” Armata said. “This is shown to organize pre-fights prior to an upcoming game. The reasons why players fight has to change. The CHL is trying to crack down on players ‘chirping’ one another in order to provoke a fight. Eliminating these pre-organized fights from social networking sites can lead to less fighting from these amateur players.”
Armata, like Stellato, feels his players need to experience a league with fighting if it’s still legal in the NHL.
“Banning fighting from there would do more harm for the players who transition in to the NHL because they simply won’t be ready,” he said. “Taking fighting out of the game would change the whole aspect of the game. Fighting is a way to motivate your team – taking things into your own hands to stick up for a teammate. I believe fighting needs to stay part of the game.”