July 2, 2015


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By Gary Lawless

Columnists

Stop the madness

Time for NHL to remove enforcers from game

Rick Rypien fought for a living and so did Derek Boogaard and today they're both dead.

Boogaard died following an accidental overdose earlier this summer and Rypien was found dead in his home on Monday.

Ottawa Senators' Chris Neil connects against Rick Rypien of the Vancouver Canucks during an NHL game in February 2010.

JEAN LEVAC / POSTMEDIA NEWS ARCHIVES

Ottawa Senators' Chris Neil connects against Rick Rypien of the Vancouver Canucks during an NHL game in February 2010.

Minnesota Wild's Derek Boogaard, left, dukes it out with Edmonton Oilers' Zack Stortini in 2007.

ANN HEISENFELT / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVES

Minnesota Wild's Derek Boogaard, left, dukes it out with Edmonton Oilers' Zack Stortini in 2007.

To suggest fighting in hockey killed these men would be a ridiculous oversimplification. But to say it had no part in the issues that besieged both NHL tough guys would be just as off base.

 

Bare-knuckle fighting on command in the course of a hockey game is not only barbaric and physically destructive, but can also be tragically damaging to the minds of the men who choose to engage in it.

The evidence of lives ravaged by the role of enforcer in the NHL is long: Dave Semenko, Louie DeBrusk, John Kordic, Bob Probert. Now Boogaard and Rypien.

All dealt with emotional troubles off the ice and all had tough guy roles on it. There's a connection. It's undeniable.

The physical damage, in particular post-concussion syndrome, is more than enough reason to remove fighting from hockey. The continuing evidence of what the job psychologically does to human beings is beyond damning.

Any argument for keeping fighting in the game is now without merit. The ride of demeaning, base violence is over. The NHL must act and it must do so swiftly. Newly anointed player safety czar Brendan Shanahan needs to make this his top priority.

Fans who say they love hockey and its players must demand it. Fighting must go. Don Cherry's pleas to keep it in the game must be disregarded as misinformed rubbish.

"It's their job and no once forced them to take the job," a reporter who covers the NHL told me on Monday night when I suggested fighting plays a role in the destruction of too many players' lives.

Fine. If they can't help themselves, let's help do it for them. The detrimental effects far outweigh any anecdotal theories about keeping the game honest.

Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber looked at the lot in life of a hockey fighter back in 1997.

"I can look back and say fighting's pretty much given me a life, but it's also kind of destroyed my life," DeBrusk told Farber. "The fact that I am a fighter on the ice and the difficulties I've had with that job definitely brought me to drink a few times. I'd go out after a game and all I could think of was the pressure I had on me during the game. Maybe I didn't fight. There'd be the guilt that I didn't fight, the feeling of worthlessness, I guess. Then I'd go out and drink myself into oblivion and maybe I'd get into a fight later. I've been advised by people who have helped me in rehab not to go back to my job."

Farber spoke to players on a number of teams and while there were some, Tie Domi among them, that enjoyed the work of punching another person in the face, overall the job provided little personal fulfilment.

"We've all had that oh-I-think-my-girlfriend's-pregnant feeling, that sick-to-your-stomach feeling when you have to do something you don't want to do," said Kelly Chase. "It's like when you've had somebody in school organize a fight for you. You know that at 3:30 you've got to go out and have that fight. That's how I feel every game and probably how I've felt since junior hockey. Eventually that's what chases a lot of guys away from the game."

Winnipeg Jets assistant GM Craig Heisinger was unwilling to link the deaths of Boogaard and Rypien to fighting on Tuesday.

"I can't answer that question because I can't speak for him. But there seems to be a developing trend there," said Heisinger.

One former NHLer told me on Monday that fighting needed to be looked at, but there was evidence of lots of players who walked away from the role emotionally intact.

"Look at Kris King, he's a vice-president with the NHL. What about Ken Baumgartner? He's an investment banker and Stu Grimson is a lawyer," said the former player.

All true, but not reason enough to look past the burned out human shells so many fighters become. Some are strong enough to survive this torturous existence, but that's no reason to let it continue.

End it. End it now, NHL.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2011 C3

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