Better late than later, Vinny’s coda to his trilogy on the history of fighting in hockey. This was done as part of his masters program in history and it shows – it’s thorough, well-researched and if you know Vinny, rather opinionated. Drop the mitts and dance!
Offseason of Hurt begets the internalization of External Criticism
“On my wrist, I sport a reminder of this summer. The simple red wristband says ‘Love for Lokomotiv’ which is a tribute to the Russian plane crash which killed an entire hockey team there, comprised almost exclusively of former or future NHLers.
It stands to reason that would make this the darkest offseason in the history of this game I’ve had a love affair with since I was 12. Unfortunately, it was already the worst offseason the NHL had ever endured before that ill fated flight.
On the eve of the NHL Draft, Rangers Enforcer Derek Boogaard was found dead, victim of a mix of prescription drugs and alcohol. Later in the offseason, noted tough guys Rick Rypien and Wade Belak would both be found dead of similar circumstances.
The offseason prior, Bob Probert, one of the toughest hombres ever to put on skates, a mythical retired enforcer for the Red Wings, passed away, and posthumously, much of the news that came out of his autopsy was about a heartbreaking picture of an addled brain from repeated concussions over the years.
None of this news occurs in a vacuum, and in the recent months, the NFL and professional wrestling have endured numerous deaths of alums of those professions, stemming at least in part from concussions due to the physicality of their endeavors. How long could the NHL ignore the mounting pressure? Well, as most big companies do, they showed a staggering ability to shrug off external criticism. After all, the fans never booed at the start of a fight, right? The funny thing about external criticism is eventually it gives way to internal discussion and whistle-blowing.
Enter Jim Thompson, Chris Nilan, Stu Grimson and Georges Laraque, all of whom threw down dozens of times in defense of their teammates. Thompson, the pinnacle of his career being 4th line enforcer for the enforcers, had lead a troubled road since leaving the game. “I went through periods of depression,” he said. “I’m a recovering alcoholic.
I believe a lot of my demons, if you will, came from hockey ending and the head blows and certain things that I wasn’t aware of.” Reading that quote in the context of this summer is gut wrenching. Thompson is now a devout anti fighting advocate.
Laraque would use his new soapbox to champion equipment changes and a better league support program for the affected. Grimson was just candid about what he’s gone through and how his life is now. These men all spoke out in light of recent events, and were not immune to the vitriolic reaction which has framed both sides of this debate for the last 25 or so years.
The old guard, as best represented by Don Cherry, venerable old Bruins coach and perhaps the most recognizable hockey voice in Canada, roared back: “I hate to say this when the kids are listening — with Georges Laraque said about … but the bunch of pukes that fought before: Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan and Jim Thomson. ‘Oh, they reason that they’re drinking drugs and alcoholic because they fight.’ You turncoats. You hypocrites. It’s one thing I’m not, it’s a hypocrite. You guys … you were fighters and now you don’t want guys that make the same living you did.” This is where we are at. Fighters are saying we need change. And old voices, of generations gone by, like Mike Milbury and Don Cherry are vilifying the men who have paid the price with their blood.
Full disclosure: I love Don Cherry. The man IS hockey. He’s a hero of mine. He couldn’t be more wrong here, however. Cherry is a throwback, he is also something of a war profiteer, selling his ‘ROCK’EM SOCK’EM’ video series for years on hockey’s biggest hits and most intense brawls. The league has lost some of its sons, there are internal voices clamoring for change in chorus with the external ones and just as many voices telling those voices to ‘shut up’. With all these cards on the table, where do we go from here?
Now that the debate has been framed and the issues have been made clear, I can finally state where I come at this: Not as someone who hates hockey, who wants to change it drastically to suit corporate sponsors, who thinks it “needs to do X to capture a more mainstream audience”, or any of that. I come at it as someone who loves it, cherishes it, considers it the greatest sport in the world, and reveres the game and it’s players. I would love nothing more than to continue to write passionately about this game until I die. Even though I am as devout a fan as you’ll find, my rose tinted visor has allowed me to see some things that need to change. Thankfully, some of them already have.
These are the recommendations I’ve come to, thanks to the large volume of sources you’ll see in the bibliography:
• The players need to have more faith in the system of supplemental discipline. The system needs to reward that faith by properly handling incidents that could lead to a series of escalating incidents like what went down between the Islanders and Penguins last year.
• There needs to be more thought in terms of protecting the player on the business end of equipment. For too long, equipment manufacturers have sought to disconnect their clients from the game by making them immune to the contact of their own hits, it’s why an elbow pad to the chops feels like being cracked in the face with a bag of concrete. If players feel the repercussions of their cheapshot, they are less likely to deliver it, which means there’s less to retaliate to.
• Bench the instigator Rule, it’s outlived it’s usefulness. If two players both want to shake the game up with a fight that freely occurs during the game, let them. Trying to dissuade them just leads to more fights. Let the boys blow it out of their system and call it a day. Bottling it up leads to it boiling over.
• The elimination of the enforcer is occurring naturally, it doesn’t need to be mandated. Teams cannot carry a player who cannot skate anymore in today’s NHL. If one were to legislate it, dropping teams to 17 skaters dressed (19 including goalies) would solve it right quick, but I honestly don’t believe it’s necessary.
• After their careers, they need better support. This was one of the fundamental issues that drove the NFL and NFLPA into such a bitter war over their last work stoppage. The leagues owe it to their players who are in essence their product, to provide them with benefits and counseling after their playing days.
• A fighting ban is ridiculous and impractical. Tensions will always boil over in a game that is so fast, so physical, and so emotional. What one can do, is make it a ten minute major instead of a five, ensuring the player’s chance to get into another fracas is severely curtailed. There’s nothing that can change the momentum of a game, a series, or even a season like a fight. It’s a declaration, a call to arms, and a warning all in one.
However, it’s also essentially unarmed assault on a unforgiving surface in full view of thousands of witnesses that has very real consequences on the combatants far after the horn sounds. For all of these reasons, it has to remain part of the game, but a tightly controlled, properly supervised facet, the players are owed that much.”
And you owe Vinny a follow on twitter: @RoseTintedVisor
- Bernstein, Ross. The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL. Chicago: Triumph , 2006.
- Botte, Peter, and Alan Hahn. Fish Sticks: The Fall And Rise of the New York Islanders. New York: Sports Publishing LLC, 2002
- Buccigross, John. “The Pros and Cons of Fighting in the NHL.” ESPN.com 8 Jan. 2007. 28 Oct. 2011 http://sports.espn.go.com/nhl/columns/story?columnist=buccigross_john&id=2724254
- Cherry, Don. “Coaches Corner.” Hockey Night in Canada. CBC Sports. 6. Oct. 2011.
- Cohen, Jason. Zamboni Rodeo: Chasing Hockey From Austin to Albuquerque. Vancouver: Greystone, 2001.
- Fishler, Stan, and Tom Sarro. Metro Ice. New York: H&M Publishing 2001.
- Fitz-Gerald, Sean. “ ‘As a Fighter in Hockey, You Live in Fear.’ ” NationalPost.Com 5 May 2011. 21 Oct. 2011. http://sports.nationalpost.com/2011/05/05/as-a-fighter-in-hockey-you-live-in-fear/
- Jones, Chris. “The Survivor.” Grantland.com 14 Sept. 2011. 22 Oct. 2011 http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/6958966/the-survivor
- Kelly, Cathal. “After Belak’s Death, NHL Must Finally Take Action.” TheStar.Com 01 Sept. 2011. 26 Oct. 2011. http://www.thestar.com/sports/hockey/article/1047673