Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

When money talks, it says, 'End fighting in the NHL'

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Jimmy Jeong / the associated press archives
Derek Boogaard (left) gets into it with Edmonton Oilers left-wing Steve MacIntyre in a 2009 game.

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Jimmy Jeong / the associated press archives Derek Boogaard (left) gets into it with Edmonton Oilers left-wing Steve MacIntyre in a 2009 game.

The moral argument long ago should have persuaded the NHL to ban bare-knuckle fist fighting from its game, but soon the economic reality will do the job.

Gary Bettman and Bill Daly were high-priced lawyers in another life and they were good at what they did. Good enough to know that someday they'll have to remove fighting from the game of hockey. It's just going to become too expensive to defend.

The lawsuit brought against the NHL, its board of governors and commissioner Bettman by the estate of Derek Boogaard may or may not extract significant monies from the league, but it will serve as a warning -- a warning Bettman will have to heed.

The lawsuit contends the NHL is responsible for the brain damage Boogaard suffered in six seasons as an enforcer and the painkiller addiction he developed under the care of team doctors.

Bettman's lawyers may be able to fend off these first legal darts, but once there is the scent of blood, others will come sniffing.

In fact, the lawyers representing the Boogaard estate also act for the family of former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson and other NFL players in lawsuits against the NFL stemming from concussions.

Boogaard's parents, Len and Joanne Boogaard, filed the lawsuit on behalf of their son's estate.

"It is my hope that this suit will bring more awareness to what really happened to our son, to see the so very wrong handling of drugs that he was given by the people that we entrusted our son to," Joanne Boogaard said. "He was there protecting his teammates at all costs, but who was there to protect him?"

Maybe it won't be a deluge of legal action, but don't think Daly doesn't look over at what's going on in the NFL and nudge Bettman's gaze in that direction.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has taken bold steps to try and sanitize his league from bacteria upon which future lawsuits can be attached.

Facing 200 cases brought by nearly 4,200 retired players, who said they were not warned of the dangers of head trauma, Goodell has been forced to act. The NFL introduces new legislation each season in an attempt to eliminate most hits to the head.

Meanwhile, over in the NHL, young men such as the late Derek Boogaard are still allowed to punch one another in the brain with no protection covering the hand or the skull.

What's worse is Bettman allowing this to continue while it adds nothing to the playing of the game and arguably damages it as a business.

Spare me the "it's part of the game" and "it's old-time hockey" arguments. They don't wash. Bench-clearing brawls were once part of the game. No one misses them. Competitively or economically.

Fighting is barely a part of the game now except for a small number of players on each roster. Why Bettman would want to let such an insignificant portion of the game potentially drag the entire thing down is difficult to understand.

It's not because he's bloodthirsty, and if forced to tell the truth, I'm almost certain Bettman would tell you he'd like to be rid of fighting, if only to avoid the nuisance.

The Winnipeg Jets engaged in 26 fights over 48 games this season and nine of those fell to the fists of one player -- Chris Thorburn. Only 10 members of the Jets were involved in fights this season and seven of those were in two or less.

Most players don't want to fight anymore, and they don't.

I've written about professional hockey at various levels, including the near Slap Shot-ian Colonial Hockey League, for more than 20 years. I've seen it all, from players climbing into the stands, to a player leaving the penalty box to chase down a mascot one night in Thunder Bay, to a player lifting another's head and bashing it into the ice.

I can't tell you that when a fight breaks out I turn away. Or that part of me doesn't watch with appreciation for the courage and skill involved in the act. But I don't go to the rink hoping to see it and I don't believe many fans do.

The argument has long been made that taking fighting out of the game will cause fans to stay away. No one knows this to be a true and, in fact, I believe more stay away because of the fighting. I know my wife doesn't want our daughter to see it. Neither do I.

I know my opinion doesn't mean more than yours, and if you like fighting in your game, that's your choice. But I'd suggest you enjoy it while it lasts. Because it's going.

Not because the keepers of the game have come to the realization they don't need it. No, like all things in pro sport, this will be decided by money.

And money says fighting is knocked out. Cold.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2013 D3

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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