Last week Sidney Crosby played hockey for the Pittsburgh Penguins, mercifully ending an “are we there yet” line of questioning that began roughly eleven months ago and ended happily ever after last Monday with a four point performance by the Wizard of Cros against perennial powerhouse, the New York Islanders. What a relief! As an article posted Tuesday morning on tsn.ca entitled “The Next Chapter” will tell you, anyone still worried about the fact that nothing has really changed in the game of hockey since Crosby’s injury need only to look at the numbers: Crosby has eleven points in five games! Case closed you bunch of pussies. Hockey’s back!
Of course, Sidney’s concussion was not the only non-Vancouver-riot story to come out of the NHL in the past year. The other thing that happened was four NHL enforcers died.
Now, if lumping the deaths of four young men into one issue strikes you as an almost criminally callous treatment of four separate tragedies, I wouldn’t argue with you. I would argue, however, that the changes made by the NHL during the off season reveal that the league has not even gone as far as to consider the deaths of these four enforcers as an issue unto itself.
Instead, Brendan Shanahan took over as the NHL’s chief disciplinarian and promptly passed rule 48 which made blindside shots to the head a punishable offense. And though I agree that this was a necessary and long overdue adjustment, I can’t help but feel like the NHL looked at the concussion of its biggest star and the deaths of four peripheral players and made changes that would ensure Sidney Crosby never suffers another concussion again.
With the untimely death of four players, questions surrounding whether or not the NHL was going to lose yet another young star to concussion, and an unspeakable tragedy in the KHL, it was undoubtedly an unprecedentedly terrible off season for professional hockey. So, it’s not surprising that the NHL would feel pressure to do some serious wagging of the dog in the hopes of preserving some semblance of a public image. And, this is exactly what the league did. A huge show has been made of the NHL’s crackdown on blindside body checks that target another player’s head. The problem is, they have done nothing to prevent the hits to the head--that is, hits delivered by a fist--that medical researchers are linking to the destructive and suicidal behaviour we are seeing in NHL enforcers.
In an ominously edifying article written for CBC news, Daniel Schwartz interviewed Boston University neurosurgeon, Robert Cantu. Cantu’s study of the brains of deceased athletes has led to a better understanding of a disease formerly thought to only afflict boxers known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE. Cantu’s research--which has already found CTE in the brains of former NHL enforcers, Bob Probert and Reggie Fleming--has lead him to believe that CTE could be at the root of the suicidal behaviour that claimed the lives of, Ryan Rypien and Wade Belak. Cantu explains that those suffering from CTE are more likely to suffer from depression due to the fact that the illness impairs both their impulse and emotional control.
Sports MD has a helpful breakdown of the disease, explaining that CTE is characterized by the build up of an abnormal protein called Tau in sections of the brain where it is not usually found. These Tau buildups, primarily caused by “repetitive brain injury,” disrupt the parts of the brain where they are found. Dr. Cantu states that with people suffering from CTE the highest concentration of Tau is found in the medial temporal lobe which “has function of: memory, impulse control, addiction, emotions, depression and anxiety.” Derek Boogaard died of a lethal combination of painkillers and alcohol and the mothers of Rick Rypien and Wade Belak have come forward confirming that both men suffered from depression. Of course, this is far from proof that any of these men suffered from CTE but as the popular Maple Leafs blog, The Leafs Nation has said of Rypien’s death, “if anybody wants to place a cash bet that it wasn’t suicide and he didn’t have CTE I’m willing to give you good odds.”
Now, many of you will be quick to point out that by preventing body-checks to the head the NHL is indeed preventing the sort of injury that may lead to CTE. I would argue that given the frequency with which this illness is found in boxers and NFL linemen that what Shanahan is attempting to do is a good first step but ultimately this initiative is completely misdirected. What the league really needs to worry about aren’t the players who suffer concussions from the occasional body-check to the head but rather, the players who livelihood consists of little more than being hit in the head.
Which brings us to the awkward part. I recently had a discussion (read: screaming match) with several friends and upon bringing up the aforementioned points I was asked what exactly it was I was suggesting. Did I want to forever neuter the game of hockey by removing the fighting aspect from it? Did I want to remove the players’ ability to police themselves? If this was the kind of sissy game I wanted, why didn’t I just watch soccer? Admitting that I was suggesting that fighting be removed from the game was difficult. Truth be told, I was a hockey fight apologist as recently as this year. (Which is to say, I didn’t see the harm in it until four NHL enforcers died or committed suicide seemingly within half an hour of each other.) Before this, I was concerned that by removing the players’ option to police themselves the NHL would have to protect their athletes by having referees call hockey games in a fashion similar to the way English Premiership referees call soccer matches. And though the prospect of reducing hockey to the halty, awkward pace of soccer--or worse still, basketball--was not something I was terribly comfortable with, what I have become more uncomfortable with is having young men put themselves in line for what Sports MD describes as, “the only preventable form of dementia” in the name of my entertainment.
Which leads us to another point frequently brought up in the defence of hockey fighting: free will. After all, no one is forcing these guys to take on the enforcer roll. And even if CTE has only recently been discovered in hockey players, surely the risks of fist fighting for a living are pretty self evident. To this I would point to the fact when a teenager realizes that the only way he can fulfill the dream that he and his parents have committed countless pre-dawn practices, hours of driving, and years of 365 day hockey seasons to is to become an enforcer, I ask you, how much freedom is there in that choice? These very young men are not making this decision in a vacuum and no one would pretend that the reward is insignificant. (If you would like to read a hugely informative article on both the psychological and phsyical consequences of the pressures placed on young athletes please read Malcolm Gladwell’s, Offensive Play.) What’s more is having committed such an enormous section of their formative years preparing to be professional hockey players, how can we possibly expect their other options to measure up to the allure of joining a fraternity of the only celebrated heroes that Canadian culture has ever been able to produce?
What defenders of hockey fighting and the NHL have to remember is that our legal system contains countless laws that solely exist as a means of protecting people from themselves. Given the obvious reasons not to drive drunk there shouldn’t need to be a law forcing us not to do it. But the fact remains that despite our better judgement and the possibly fatal consequences, people are going to be tempted to risk their lives for the sake of convenience or laziness or whatever else. What’s more, drunk drivers are willing to take on these risks without the added temptation of the fame and the millions of dollars that NHL enforcers stand to earn. Ultimately, young hockey players are being offered a deal they cannot refuse and it is because of this that the NHL needs to take responsibility and protect the league’s fourth line players with the same enthusiasm as they protect their stars.