Fighting in hockey is as old as the game itself. Players settling grudges and sticking up for their fellow players has always had a place in the game. But with the recent deaths of two fighters, as well as studies conducted on former NHL brawlers showing potential effects of trading punches on the brain, has this age old art form run its course in the game?
Some would argue maybe. The league has lost two young players in the past three months. New York Rangers‘ forward Derek Boogaard was found dead in May after a lethal mix of oxycodone and alcohol. Earlier this week, Winnipeg Jet and former Vancouver Canuck Rick Rypien was also found dead in his home. Both were fighters, and both were battling depression at the time of their deaths.
Both Boogaard, 28, and Rypien, 27, were seeking help at the time of their deaths, possibly making the situation all the more heartbreaking. The NHL believes their wellness program is the best in the sports business, but possibly more can be done to protect those in the league who are dealing with demons, whether as a result of drugs, alcohol or their play styles on the ice.
“My guess is we’ll talk at the appropriate time with the players’ association, making sure that we’re comfortable with all of the mechanisms and programs we have in place, which are extensive,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to the Canadian Press. “I don’t think any sports league does more than we do but maybe there’s more, as we focus on it, that we need to focus on. I know it’s always hard for people to accept, but sports is a microcosm of society in general.”
Drugs and alcohol are just one demon. It has been determined both were involved with Boogaard’s death, and it is still unknown if either played a role in Rypien’s death. But, as stated, both were quick to drop the gloves on the ice.
The game has clearly evolved from the bar-room brawls fans saw in the 1970s, down to maybe a few scraps a week per team. But is it still a large part of the game? No, it isn’t.
The days of the one-dimensional goon getting four minutes a game, inserted into the lineup just to fight are long-gone. Today, a player cannot make a living solely fighting, and must be able to contribute in several different areas of the ice. The game is too fast for those types of players.
Now, some would argue- myself included- there is still a place for it in the game, but it must be monitored. If you remove fighting from the game entire, you remove the players policing themselves, leading to more injuries and suspensions due to players stepping outside the line to retaliate to a hit or cheap-shot.
In the end, it comes down to the players and trainers and organizations. Teams cannot force their players into treatment or programs, but they can monitor the health of their employees. Fighting has always, and should continue to be, part of the game. But the days of risking a player’s health to do so should end.
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