Hockey is a violent game by nature

On the Ball column by Craig Lindsay, Jan. 6 Grand Forks Gazette

A local resident recently posted on social media that he had taken his grandson to the Border Bruins game on Saturday at the arena and after witnessing several fights, he left the game and would not be returning. “A Bruins game is no place for children,” he wrote.

As a reporter I have covered many hockey games over the past six or seven years. I also played minor hockey from the age of six to 18 and then, after a brief hiatus, recreational hockey and old-timers hockey. So I believe I speak with some experience on the subject. It is admirable for parents to want to protect their children and keep them safe; that is completely understandable. I’m not a parent. I do have a couple of nieces and I didn’t want to see them play rugby when they were in school. I certainly cringed when they got bumped and pushed in basketball.

For myself, there were certainly injuries growing up and playing hockey. I still bear a few scars from the pre-face cage days. I also had a few bigger injuries like a dislocated shoulder and bruised hips. We didn’t have a lot of fights in our games. Of course, I only played house league so maybe there were more at the rep level. The couple of fights I was in were usually over pretty quickly.

Growing up I would often watch the junior hockey games, the junior A Vernon Lakers and then the Cranbrook Colts and senior Cranbrook Royals. There were certainly the occasional fight but I can’t recall ever being really riled up or disgusted. In most cases hockey fights are between two consenting players. The players know what is happening when they fight. Any fight in junior is a game misconduct. In the professional ranks such as the NHL, it’s a basic five-minute penalty in most cases.

Why is there fighting in hockey? Why is hockey the only major sport with fisticuffs? In basketball, baseball and even football, it’s very, very rare. The reasons for fighting in hockey vary but are usually along the lines of retaliation for a prior play, to try and gain momentum for your team, to intimidate the other team, and to protect star players.

Commentator Don Cherry is a long-time advocate of aggressive play and has said that there is a “code” in the NHL where it is respectable to use honourable violence (fighting) to deter dishonourable hockey violence (cheap shots and dirty play).

Is fighting good or bad for hockey? Fighting aside, hockey is a violent game by nature. From an early age, hitting is a big part of hockey. It’s a game of short spurts—go hard for one minute and then sit and rest for two minutes. Adrenaline rises and testosterone is boosted leading to more physical encounters. Many hockey fans watch the game because of the hitting and the fighting. It’s a vicarious way of releasing pent up frustration and stress for many.

Until about 20 or 30 years ago, little thought was put into protecting the players. Sure there was equipment, shoulder pads, knee pads, helmets, gloves and so on, but it’s only been recently that hitting from behind and head shots have been banned and experts have begun looking at the long-term damage of fighting and hitting.

Bob Probert was known as one of the toughest fighters in the NHL during his career. Sadly he died at the age of 45 of heart failure. It was later discovered that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma. Probert had a total of 355 fights over his 16-year career. More than 20 deceased professional footballs players have been diagnosed posthumously with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Another tragic case was that of Derek Boogaard, an enforcer who played in the NHL with Minnesota and the New York Rangers, who died at age 28 of a drug and alcohol overdose while recovering from a concussion. Boogard was also diagnosed with CTE, which can only be seen after death. Both Probert and Boogard had drug and alcohol issues as well.

It’s hard to say whether those two cases are the “tip of the iceberg” or rare cases helped along by substance abuse.

As for the Border Bruins, anyone watching this year can see how much faster and better they are than last year or even earlier in the season. Here’s hoping that the young team can get it done on the ice without having to resort to too much fisticuffs. These young fellows play hard and deserve to have good crowds cheering them on.