A little over a year has passed since 21-year-old Don Sanderson took his last breath. The defenceman of the Whitby Dunlops, a senior level AAA hockey team, crashed his helmet-less head on the ice during a fight on December 12, 2008. The injury led to Sandersons eventual death. Most unfortunately, however, time has not changed the face of hockey, for it remains the only professional sport that accommodates within its legislation spontaneous acts of violence.
For many Canadians, hockey is a true manifestation of action. It incorporates the best of talent and entertainment, skimmed from the physical altercations that are resultant of foul play or revenge. For the many who oppose banning fights in hockey, on-ice combat is pivotal in that it protects talented players from the cheap shots: team mates guard the gifted players from harm, enabling them to focus on the game. But what about the fights that are instigated by violent players, who attack their peaceful opponents?
Take for instance, Steve Downie of the Philadelphia Flyers, who in October 2007 sent Dean McAmmond of the Ottawa Senators into a concussion with a mighty flying elbow. Or Jesse Boulerice, also of the Flyers, and his cross-check to the face of Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks. In both cases, infamous fighters disrupted the peace by attacking traditionally peaceable opponents. How is violence functioning as a mechanism of protecting these talented players?
Many argue that being physical is integral to the game of hockey; fights are channels through which frustrations can be released. Violence, however, tends to lead to more violence. One of the best illustration of this truth can be found in the Richard Riot of St. Patricks Day in 1955. Maurice Richard, the iconic Montreal Canadiens player, was high-sticked in the face by Hal Laycoe of the Boston Bruins. Infuriated, Richard struck Laycoe in the face, eventually breaking his stick over the Bruins back, and punched a linesman twice in the face, rendering him unconscious. A season long suspension ensued, which also prevented Richard from playing in the playoffs. This propelled a riot of enraged supporters protesting the banishment of Richard from the ice, including the setting off a tear gas bomb in the arena and extensive looting and damage to buildings in its vicinity.
Violence is indeed vicious; however, it is also glamorized.
Of late, hockey fights have gained an overwhelming amount of emphasis. In sports highlights, fights from a previous game receive airtime comparable to that of the scoring of a goal. Hockey is exhilarating in its fast pace and inexhaustible displays of intricate moves, but since when was the fight that lasted three minutes more important than the other 57 minutes of cold, hard hockey?
As long as the NHL continues to make fighting part of the game, we’ll continue to make it part of our highlight package, stated Mike English, the executive producer of Sportsnet Connected, whose network features a collection of hockey fights in a weekly TV show, Friday Night Fights.
Hockey Night in Canadas executive producer, Sherali Najak, shared similar views. If there’s anything going on the ice, we have to show it, including a fight. It’s not our job to censor the game. You have to show it and you have to show it all.
For the millions of viewers and the thousands of youngsters that idolize NHL players, the overwhelming frequency of violent outbursts—approximated at 0.64 fights per game—may be sending out the wrong message. Are we, by not pushing the NHL to enforce penalties with more vigour, condoning violence?
Participation in organized team sports teaches us life-lessons, instils within us a sense of responsibility and the ability to work with others. By allowing professional adults to interact amongst each other viciously, are we redefining the notions of sportsmanship and professionalism for our future generations?
A 2007 hockey fighting camp for children, founded by Derek Boogaard of the Minnesota Wild, tutored players in the skill of protecting themselves on the ice. For added authenticity, the children donned T-shirts decorated with imitation blood.
Clarence Campbell, the NHL president from 1946 to 1977, claimed that if fighting were to be abolished, the players would no doubt develop more subtle forms of viciousness.
If that is the case, why is it that this tolerable face of violence is being twisted into a hideous form? Why has Don Sanderson lost his life?
The inexhaustible list of injuries sustained by hockey players is frightening. Concussions, seizures that cause uncontrollable shaking of limbs and the rolling back of eyes, various gashes and wounds and other more serious injuries are becoming intolerable. It is time the NHL came down hard.
Stricter penalties are not uncommon in other sports, considering the policies in basketball, baseball and football. The latter, which features tackling and such physical interactions amongst players, alongside strict ejection rules, should be taken as a model. The beauty of hockey is not reflected in blood spatter and blackened eyes. Hockey is adrenaline, agility and cunning. It is not necessary to eradicate fighting; it is necessary to regulate fighting in hockey more closely.