The truncated NHL season has, mercifully, come to an end. Late in June, the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Boston Bruins to win the Stanley Cup. This year they did it without me in the television audience. I grew up playing hockey on frozen outdoor rinks in the prairies. I dreamed, like many other boys, of one day making it to the NHL and actually played a lot of hockey until I was about 25 years old. But I can no longer stomach an NHL business model that demands gratuitous violence from so many of its practitioners and boasts legions of media commentators who justify and celebrate it. That violence ruins the health and lives of many NHL players, but also seeps down to affect the legions of young people who play hockey but will never achieve their dreams of playing professionally.
Broken nose and concussion
I was planning to catch the Ottawa Senators-Montreal Canadiens series in the first round of the playoffs this year but was unable to watch game one. In that contest, Senators’ defenceman Eric Gryba, who weighs 222 pounds, made a brutal hit on Canadiens’ forward Lars Eller, which left him crumpled on the ice with blood spurting from his broken nose. Upon examination, it became clear that Eller also had a concussion. Gryba was suspended for two games. I watched the video replays on the news and decided that I would boycott the NHL, permanently. I have found it an easy thing to do.
At the extreme end of the spectrum were the deaths in 2011 of NHL enforcers: Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, and Derek Boogaard. Belak, 35, recently retired from hockey, took his life, as did Rypien at age 27.
Boogaard, 28, was found dead in his Minneapolis apartment in May. According to the coroner, his death was considered to be the result of an accidental drug overdose. All three were enforcers whose main role on their teams was to fight. In fact, all NHL teams have players whose job it is to fight. One might be forgiven for believing that they are soldiers and that hockey is war.
The NHL, of course, promised to look closely into this rash of deaths but hockey commentators hastened to warn against drawing any links between the brutal occupations of these young men and the manner of their demise. Yet, just such potential links have been surfacing.
Degenerative brain disease
Notably, Boston neurosurgeon Robert Cantu and his colleagues are studying the brains of athletes who have died. They have, for example, examined the brains of Reggie Fleming, a fighter in the 1960s, and Bob Probert, a retired enforcer who died in July 2010 of a heart attack. The CBC has reported that Cantu found both Fleming and Probert had something called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). That’s a degenerative brain disease caused by blunt impact to the head. It is a condition common among boxers but is also known to occur among hockey and football players. Dr. Cantu says that addiction, depression and anxiety may all arise from CTE.
Stars forced out
Not everyone in hockey is groomed as a fighter but violence is also taking its toll on many finesse players, the scorers and playmakers. Within the past few years, high-scoring stars Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau and Pat Lafontaine have all had to retire because of concussions. In 2011, the league’s premier player Sydney Crosby missed most of the season due to concussions and there were fears that his career might be over. He has returned.
The fights and big hits also occur in the NHL feeder leagues, including junior hockey, and pervade leagues featuring even younger players. In January 2013, a 17-year-old player in Woodstock, Ontario beat another player after a goalmouth scramble, throwing about 10 punches. The second player did not fight back and was later discovered to have a concussion. It was only after parents of the victim complained publicly and provided a video of the event that police laid a charge (on June 26) of assault causing bodily harm. A lawyer interviewed on CBC TV said that hockey matters such as these should be left at the rink and not be taken into the courts. Sorry, but no. Why should assault on the ice be any different than assault on the street?
Giving up on the NHL
There is no shortage of apologists who argue that fighting and heavy hitting are a sacred part of hockey. Don Cherry and even the more urbane Ron MacLean come to mind, not to mention an array of other talk jocks on radio and television. Sooner or later, however, emerging science and public opinion will force the league to emerge from its Neanderthal fog. In the meantime, I have given up on the NHL and that has posed no problem at all.