September 02, 2011
Public perception and public pressure usually lead to action more often than hard evidence — which is probably why the fighting issue is not going to get off the Canadian Hockey League's door step any time soon.
There is room for healthy skepticism about whether WHL alumnus and former NHLer Wade Belak's role as an enforcer played a part in his death this week. There is reasonable doubt whether there is a common link between the sad stories of Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, let alone whether it is the fact each was an enforcer. However, it does give the media a soapbox (guilty as charged!).
For the CHL, as the most prominent under-20 league which allows fighting, it means there is more and more of a cacophony of voices willing to say fighting should be taken out of junior hockey. It is now being seen as a societal problem, as Andrew McKay pointed out at our sibling site Eh Game. Gregg Drinnan today published a letter from a healthy professional and hockey parent in British Columbia who noted one-quarter of concussions in junior occur during fights. People might no be willing to abide that as much as they did five, 10, 20 years ago. From Taking Note (emphasis mine):
The WHL has put in place new rules regarding hits to the head (and has moved to soften shoulder and elbow pads) and that is excellent news. However, there is no movement on banning fights. There is no way of knowing whether fighting or other causes of head trauma pose the bigger risk and I don't think it matters. We do know that the hockey players who have suffered most from this disease were enforcers and that 25 per cent of concussions in junior hockey are caused by fights. Fighting is gratuitous and preventable and the coaches and the referees, the fans, the parents and the whole WHL system are accountable for it.
Regina Leader-Post scribe Rob Vanstone also pointed out that on a visceral level, there is something off-putting about seeing teenaged players fight in front of junior crowds, which mostly consist of older adults and (won't someone think of) the children. That segues into the moral and ethical questions: is that enough of a reason to ban it?
Belak, [Derek] Boogaard and [Rick] Rypien all honed their pugilistic skills in the WHL, which raises another issue. There is something unpalatable about watching teenagers fight one another, especially when the compensation is generally a pittance, but major-junior operators accept such antics as part of the game.Being that the WHL, OHL and QMJHL are developmental leagues, it can be argued that those organizations are responsible for preparing their players for all elements of the sport. Fighting is a component of the NHL, so the big-league philosophy permeates, at considerable risk. (Regina Leader-Post)
That is a fair point about "all elements of the sport." Any player hoping to get drafted is at least under the impression a scout will be taking notes about whether he is willing to stick up for his teammates. Perhaps it should be on the NHL to take the lead before the civil court system — the possibility of a successful class-action suit or two against another major sports league, the NFL, by former players who say they were not adequate protected by concussions — forces their hand.
As well, so long as the (mostly) men in suits allow fighting, it is self-righteous to harshly judge any junior who accepts he will have to fight occasionally. (Sample quote last spring from Mississauga-St. Michael's Majors forward Joseph Cramarossa, who went on to be drafted by the Anaheim Ducks: "I knew I would have to chip in and play my part and take my success from doing that — penalty killing, checking, finishing hits, fighting when I have to and just helping our team.") You cannot judge an athlete who, given the culture of a game that is always going to be alien and unknowable to those who have not lived it, has to do whatever it takes.
On the other, that argument might fall apart when it is pointed out aother feeder leagues that groom NHL-calibre players get by without it — various European circuits and the NCAA. (As Chad Balcom pointed out, the USHL does permit it; thank you, Mr. Balcom.) There is probably a sidebar here that the longer the CHL permits fighting, the more likely it is to be used in negative recruiting by leagues to the south, as Jess Rubenstein astutely pointed out.
And that, hopefully, underlines the main point. The public mood might be shifting, just as it has on a number of health-and-safety issues (here one thinks of the changing attitudes across the decades toward mandatory seat-belts, driving after drinking alcohol, smoking, helmets for cyclists.) Perhaps this is more of a chattering-class issue than one that is part of the daily grind of an aspiring pro hockey player; the big hue-and-cry in the Canadian media over three NHL enforcers dying in a four-month span has yet to dissuade anyone from dropping the gloves. Bruce Arthur also cautioned, as noted up top, it is not even clear fighting was the link between each loss of each young life.
It might make emotional sense to blame fighting for the death of three young men accounted to be good guys, sweet and earnest and with hearts as big as a Prairie sky. Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien and Belak were good guys who died young. It makes sense, wanting to blame something.
Evidence matters, though, and there is no evidence that this had a damned thing to do with the fact that Wade Belak fought more than 100 times in the National Hockey League. We've been told his death did not involve foul play, and that he took his own life, even if the police have not confirmed how it happened. (National Post)
The cruel summer in the hockey community might end up being a catalytic set of circumstances that force a change in public mood. All the facts are not in, but there might be enough facts to push public perception in a direction that will force the CHL to act.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: Getty Images).