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.
For those who prefer hockey without the violence used to market games in North America, I’d suggest watching European teams for whom – strange creatures that they are – hockey is all about skating, passing, shooting, and the game itself is a contest of skill. And, with 32 teams playing in the NHL’s tackle-hockey league, the quality of the play itself is hardly anything to write home about.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I used to play a bit of hockey myself for a group of ice warriors known as the Wadena Wildcats – that was back in the days when Pamela Wallin brought her own lunch to school. Although I’m sure I was never in the same league as the likes of prospects like Dennis Gruending, I was perfect for the game – I couldn’t resist getting into fights. One afternoon I actually got in a fight at practice with a friend from school – and my desire to play game was gone about a minute after the coach separated us. I never, ever skated again.
When my son was about eight years old, I took him to see a hockey game. A fight broke out the ice near the corner where we were sitting and my son and I had, as they say, ‘a ringside seat.’ I was actually very relieved the fight upset my son and he asked to go home before the end of the first period. Thereafter he simply said he didn’t like hockey, and never again did he express any interest in strapping on the blades.
These days I still fight a lot, but I don’t use my fists anymore. This year, while the hockey playoffs slowly and painfully ground to a long, long overdue conclusion late in June, my wife and I were arrested while praying on Highway 126 near Rogersville, New Brunswick. Among the 12 arrested that day (June 15) when more than 60 RCMP officers swooped down upon us soon after dawn was our leader, a Buddhist, who wound up face down in the gravel, and an Elder of the Maliseet First Nation who was also praying. So far, 33 people like us have been arrested on Highway 126 this June trying to stop a technology of death known as hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking.’ Highway 126 in New Brunswick is where the culture of life and the culture of death are locked in a struggle far more important than anything that has ever happened on ice.
So, while I first learned to fight not long after I learned to skate, these days the only protective equipment I use is my faith, and the only weapon I use is non-violence. It’s not as dramatic as ‘dropping the gloves’ while the spectators roar their approval, but it’s far more satisfying than simply knocking someone down because you hit him before he hit you. For those who want to ‘fight for life’ this summer, New Brunswick is the place. It is in Canada’s poorest province that a provincial government allied with a gas company from Texas is trying to force the technology of death known as ‘fracking’ upon a group of people determined to resist it because we want our lives to be about celebrating life. Unlike hockey, this is something worth the fight.
Thanks for the comments Dallas. Please keep us updated about your non-violent opposition to the fracking crews.
Thanks for this reflection on an important topic – culture of violence in our national sport. How many more head injuries and deaths will happen before we see the light. Perhaps like duels in 18th century , people will recognize absurdity of making hockey into a deadly sport where each team has players recruited for their fighting capability.
If there’s any consolation the more skilled team won out this year so it might start a trend.
On the subject of fracking there are suggestions these highly touted oil and gas shale gas reserves have been highly exaggerated and this “fracking craze” is just another investment bubble engineered by Wall Street.
Just watched some clips on YouTube. The violence is gratuitous, vicious and stunning. Like Pit Bulls the NHL should be eradicated as a breed.
Not only are hockey fans starting to question the violence, they are bored by the style of the games. ‘Dump and chase’ is not as exciting as the end to end rushes in the days of Cornoyer, Lemieux and Orr. If you want to watch exciting, skilled hockey, tune in to US college hockey. The wide ice allows skilled players to demonstrate their skating, puck handling and creativity.I am more selective in the games I watch, choosing teams like Pittsburgh who have many skilled players.
Thanks for the comment Douglas. I should have mentioned in my piece that I still enjoy hockey, but not the NHL variety. YOur point about college hockey is a good one. My brother-in-law still plays and enjoys hockey and he is in his early 70s.