fighting hockey, fighting nhl
Frederick Breedon/AP
Nashville Predators right wing Wade Belak, left, fights New Jersey Devils left wing Mike Rupp.

Death and Injuries Prompt Hockey to Re-examine Role of Fighting

February 09, 2009 10:25 AM
by Denis Cummings
A death of an amateur player and a seizure suffered by a minor leaguer have rekindled debate over what, if anything, should be done about fighting in hockey.

Hockey Death Provokes Debate

On Jan. 2, 21-year-old amateur hockey player Don Sanderson died after three weeks in a coma, having hit his head on the ice during a fight in a Dec. 12 Ontario Hockey Association game. Sanderson’s death brought to light a long-running debate about whether fighting should be allowed in hockey.

For many, the death of a player was inevitable. “It was not an accident,” wrote Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. “An accident, by its very nature, is something that can’t be foreseen, but we have seen this coming for years.”

The Ontario Hockey League, a major junior league, responded by forbidding players to remove their helmets before fights. Executives in the National Hockey League, where the number of major fighting penalties has increased in each of the last two years, said that they would discuss fighting, but showed little inclination to make changes.

On Jan. 23, American Hockey League player Garret Klotz suffered a seizure on the ice after hitting his head on the dasher and ice during a fight. Klotz had removed his helmet before the fight, which began immediately following the opening faceoff. He recovered and returned to the team, and has said that he believes fighting is part of the game.

“I know the risks that I’m taking when I go out there and I’m willing to take that risk,” said Klotz, who had one assist and 54 penalty minutes at the time of the accident. “It’s not too often that this happens.”

Frank Mahovlich, a Hockey Hall of Famer and Canadian senator, suggested on Feb. 5 that leagues ban fighting temporarily and analyze the results. “Try a not-fighting rule and see how it works,” he said. “If that doesn’t do it then go back to fighting. But I think they should give it a try because a lot of people are being seriously hurt.”

Reactions: NHLers support fighting

Few in the NHL have called for fighting to be eliminated. Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke has been the most vocal defender of fighting. “If you take fighting out of the game, you eliminate the players’ ability to regulate the violence in the game,” he said. “Fighting to me is the self-policing mechanism in the game to prevent the head shots, the hits from behind, and I will never vote to have it eliminated.”

Fighting was one of the main topics of discussion around the NHL’s Jan. 25 All Star break. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that he didn’t think “there is any appetite to abolish fighting from the game,” but he said that the NHL will discuss rule changes involving “chinstraps, helmets, takedowns and other elements of fighting that some argue increase the risk factor,” according to the Toronto Star’s Damien Cox.

Paul Kelly, head of the NHL Players’ Association, said Wednesday that the NHL should try to eliminate “staged” fights, such as the one in which Klotz was injured. “My view has always been, if the fight arises out of the emotion and spontaneity of the game … then that’s all a natural part of the game,” he said, adding that fights between “just the two heavyweights, not precipitated by some hockey play and in some instances, prearranged” should be reduced.

Kelly would also like to see fights stopped once a player loses his helmet, a belief supported by NHL heavyweight Georges Laraque. The Canadiens winger told TSN’s Darren Dreger that the NHL would be “bush league” if it didn’t act in response to Sanderson’s death.

“Every fight a guy ends up on the ground and risks hitting his head on the ice,” he said.  “It’s simple. If the helmet comes off, or a player purposely takes it off, the ref should come in and stop the fight.”

The fighting issue will be addressed at the March general managers meeting in Florida, though it is unlikely that the GMs will choose to try to significantly reduce fighting. According to a survey by TSN of 18 executives, only two supported “stiffer punishment” and neither supported an automatic game misconduct for fighting.

Opinion & Analysis: Writers debate role of fighting

In the wake of Sanderson’s death, many writers have called for fighting to be eliminated from hockey. “The arguments for allowing fighting in hockey have been thrown about for a long time,” writes Andy Prest of Vancouver’s North Shore News. “Claiming that fans enjoy fights seems absurd now that a player has been killed during a fist fight on skates. If that is sport, I don’t want to be a part of it.”

Stephen Brunt of The Globe and Mail believes that the main reason fighting is allowed is to sell tickets, and he holds those who profit from fighting responsible for its consequences. “Everybody involved with the sport, especially everybody who makes a nickel from it, is complicit in those acts—from the players and their union, to the leagues and their commissioners, to television networks running the fight highlights and to the Saturday night demagogue peddling his videos,” he writes.

Charlie Gillis of Maclean’s magazine rejects the argument that fighting reduces dirty play, arguing that many cheap shots are committed by players who are only in the league because of fighting. “The league is trapped in a vicious cycle, where fighters are doing the cheap shots, the cheap shots are leading to more fights, and the officials have given up trying to stop them,” he writes.

Others have called for the NHL to implement rules that reduce the danger of fighting. Mike Brophy of Rogers Sportsnet calls for “designated goons,” players who rack up many penalty minutes while playing just 5–10 minutes a game, to be removed from the game.

“And while I still would not want to see fighting taken out of professional hockey, I admit I am not pleased with the direction it has gone in recent years,” he writes. “The NHL has done an excellent job eliminating brawling from the game, but at the same time, there are more fighting specialists than ever.”

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