When two enforcers who honed their fistic techniques in the Canadian Hockey League die young in the same month, it should raise tough questions.
Derek Boogaard's death at age 28 from an overdose of alcohol and Oxycodone two weeks ago was a NHL story first; the Western Hockey League angle mainly involved fond reminisces about a shy teen from Saskatchewan who grew into a seven-figure-salary NHLer. Now, in Bob Duff's phrasing, "What we do know is this — another hockey tough guy has died long before his time." Barry Potomski, who had 200-plus penalty minutes in his two full seasons with the London Knights in the early 1990s and had a two-season NHL stint as an enforcer, died Monday of an apparent heart attack.
No one's intimating in the slightest there's a cause-and-effect with the fights either man chose to partake in as dating back to junior. Still, evidence is mounting about concussions and traumatic brain injuries. The sensibility has sunk in with the players (today at the MasterCard Memorial Cup, Owen Sound Attack GM Dale DeGray noted one of his players was the first to tell team staff captain Garrett Wilson was showing concussion-like symptoms). Concussions and fighting aren't all wrapped up in one, but it definitely is a contradiction to be concerned about the former and tolerate the latter. Maybe the next progressive, logical step will come from the CHL. Rob Vanstone had a good story today talking about the medical basis for ousting fighting:
"I think fighting should be eliminated," states Dr. David Dodick, a professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic and the president of the American Headache Association.
"How can I say that when you elbow me in the head you're going to be suspended for 10 games with a $100,000 fine, yet I can drop the gloves and you can drop the gloves and I can punch you 10 times in the head? There's an incongruence there. It's mutually contradictory that you can eliminate head hits, but you can implicitly condone fighting."
The NHL has taken steps of late to stiffen sanctions against players who administer blows to the head during the flow of the game. Yet, considerably less scrutiny is applied to players who aim punches at an opponent's head, often connecting and, at times, causing injury. (Saskatoon StarPhoenix)
That does filter down to junior. At the risk of playing expert after the fact, a fighting ban would make it exceedingly difficult for someone to break into pro hockey because of that so-called skill. Following the Boogaard coverage as a reader, one thought that keeps popping up is this is someone who kind of got used by a manipulative system. When someone has to turn to Oxycodone, that is chilling. From Gregg Drinnan:
Oxycodone is used to treat moderate to severe pain. It is a narcotic pain reliever and is highly addictive. It has, in fact, been compared to heroin; in some corners, it is referred to as Hillbilly Heroin. It is evil.
What was especially chilling, however, was one sentence in an ensuing statement from Boogaard's family.
"After repeated courageous attempts at rehabilitation and with the full support of the New York Rangers, the NHLPA, and the NHL," the statement read, "Derek had been showing tremendous improvement but was ultimately unable to beat this opponent." (Kamloops Daily News)
It's something to consider. Major junior hockey has come a long way from the days when Wayne Gretzky had a line in his authorized biography about how the game was "breeding animals." There's still a bit of dissonance, although we all know the toll a concussion can take. As a case in point, John MacNeil recently caught up with Brayden Cuthbert, a 17-year-old Moose Jaw Warriors forward whose rookie WHL season ended after a big hit by Red Deer's Mathew Dumba:
There are no easy answers. More than four months after being sidelined, Cuthbert has just recently been free of concussion symptoms. He skated with friends last week and completed a workout without incident. It's a promising sign, but he still plans to see a neurologist in Winnipeg to further investigate the trauma that enveloped his life for months.
"Everybody is getting bigger and stronger nowadays," [Cuthbert] said of today's hockey players. "There are faster skaters and the equipment seems to be getting heavier and thicker, so if you get hit in the head, it seems concussions are just popping up a lot more than they used to. It's not a good thing, at all. The league, or all leagues, are going to have to crack down on that, because if there's too many head injuries, who knows what's going to happen." (Brandon Sun)
It's complex with how to reduce the number of concussions from standard game play. It's getting more and more clear-cut with fighting, though.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.