Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/1/2009 (4882 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The focus on fighting in the National Hockey League has, however, masked a bigger problem. Excessive hockey violence is on the rise and, unsurprisingly, the league is in a downward spiral. The causes are myriad but the uncomfortable truth is that professional hockey has lost its way.
Recent events should give the governing bodies of hockey and the legal system cause for concern. Don Sanderson, a 21-year-old defenceman, died last month after his head struck the ice at the end of a fight in an Ontario Hockey League game. Ottawa Senator Jarkko Ruutu just bit the finger of an opponent in an NHL game! Even though they're on opposite ends of the spectrum, Sanderson's tragic death and Ruutu's chomp share the same theme of unbridled violence in hockey.
This argument is not strictly about fighting. Fighting is an accepted part of the hockey culture and the leagues have developed complex, if not irrational, regulations governing its conduct.
The penalties do not serve to dissuade or discourage players from fighting. Its place in the game and its promotion serve as a "ground zero" in infecting other parts of the game with hitherto unheard-of levels of violence. In short, despite denunciation by the leagues and rules against such conduct, players are hitting one another harder (into the boards or open ice checks), hitting higher (in the head) and hitting with a weapon (a hockey stick) more than ever before. Lost is a respect for the game amid a willingness to "cross the line" with late hits and cheap shots. As Jeremy Roenick of the NHL San Jose Sharks has commented, "In the mid-'80s, there was more respect for the guy's well-being. Nowadays, it's see how hard you can hit them."
Hockey violence is escalating. Eight of the 10 longest suspensions levied by the NHL have been in the 21st century. More than half of last season's 65 concussions in the NHL were the result of hits to the head or from behind and only eight drew penalties. The rules are not working.
Not only is the line not being respected by players, it is not being enforced by the NHL.
Colorado Avalanche player Steve Moore was tracked, not unaware, by Todd Bertuzzi and felled by a gloved blow from behind -- the legality of which is for the courts to decide in his civil lawsuit. Moore wasn't in a fight. Neither was Donald Brashear, who was hit from behind with a stick (Marty McSorley -- 23 games), nor Tomas Sandstrom who was cross-checked and suffered a broken jaw (Dave Brown -- 15 games) and the list goes on and on.
These are not isolated incidents. Connecting the dots reveals a pattern of systematized violence.
The NHL will try to hide behind the shibboleth that violence is part of the game of hockey. Indeed, upon his arrival with the Toronto Maple Leafs, former Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke vowed to engineer a team that is pugnacious and belligerent and whose style of play results in black and blue hockey. Burke applied this blueprint to success in the 2006-07 NHL season when the Ducks amassed a league-high 71 fighting major penalties and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
But there's a difference between playing hard hockey and intending to injure.
The courts are no longer willing to sit idle on the bench. Two NHL players, Marty McSorley and Todd Bertuzzi, have been convicted of assault. The game is perilously close to being out of control. How else to characterize a sport in which an NHL player (Mike Danton) is imprisoned for attempting to hire a hit man to kill his agent, brain injuries are regarded as normal, eight-year-olds are involved in bench-clearing brawls, Steve Moore's $38-million lawsuit, and Todd Bertuzzi's suit against his former coach? This is to be considered normal in sport?
Surely even the sport's most ardent defenders must concede that something is wrong with the game of hockey.
If the NHL hasn't the backbone or is unwilling to clean up its act, the state will have no choice but to do its dirty work. The Quebec government's intervention last year to introduce tougher rules to curb hockey violence is a welcome development and reminiscent of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt's threat in 1905 to abolish football by executive order unless the game could be made less violent. It would do the NHL good to bone up on its history.
The focus shouldn't be on fighting. It should instead be about reckless and excessive violence that has no place in the game of hockey. And if this type of behaviour does rear its ugly head, then players should be prepared to pay the price both in ice time and in court.
Jon Heshka, a former Winnipegger, is an assistant professor at Thompson River University in Kamloops, B.C.