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Luke Graham: The NHL needs to ban fights

Luke Graham

— For the first time in my life, seeing a hockey fight on television the other night left an empty, empty feeling in my stomach.

It's the only time in my life I've thought about hockey fights this way. Part of the appreciation I've always had for the NHL was the players policing themselves. It was an integral part of every team. There was an honesty about two men settling team disputes by a 45 second fight.

But John Branch's recent three-part series in The New York Times about the life and eventual death of former NHL goon Derek Boogaard was jaw dropping.

It's the best and most jarring piece of journalism I've seen this year.

To summarize, Boogaard wanted to be an NHL player. He started fighting at a young age, and by the time he was 16, he was in the Western Hockey League in Canada as an enforcer, fighting guys four years older than he was.

But it was his only way to the NHL. He later became a NHL draft pick and then the most feared man in the NHL.

Known as the Boogeyman and standing 6-foot-8, Boogaard became a cultural phenomena in Minnesota where he played. Whenever he'd throw one skate over the glass, the Minnesota Wild fans would erupt. He became the best fighter in the game, signed a big contract with the New York Rangers and seemed to have achieved his dream.

But all the shots to the head and the beating on his hands took its toll. He died of a drug overdose at 28. The cause was alcohol and painkillers. But on further examination of his brain, it was found he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a cousin of Alzheimer's.

Two other enforcers, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, died around the same time.

One of the most lasting moments of my childhood took place when touring the HSBC Arena in Buffalo, N.Y. Upon entering the building, there was a gregarious man with a nose that went three different ways.

His face looked like a retired catcher's mitt. But it was my favorite Buffalo Sabres player of all time, NHL goon Rob Ray.

I loved Ray for his toughness, his guile, his ability to not only fight but beat his opponents by outsmarting them. He used to, prior to fights, take off his jersey so players couldn't grab onto him. Later, the NHL said players would be assessed more penalties for taking off their jerseys or pads. This rule is affectionately known as the Rob Ray Rule.

Since that moment, I've always thought of fighting in hockey as just part of the game. But understanding Boogaard's experience changed all that. Boogaard was in training to be an NHL goon since age 12.

Other leagues are looking at what can be done to protect the brain and prevent concussions. The NFL suspended James Harrison from today's Pittsburgh Steelers game for a helmet to helmet hit.

In the NHL, a fight simply brings a five-minute penalty.

The NHL needs to seriously look at banning fighting. They need to protect players and make sure brains aren't getting bashed in.

Traditionalists will say it is part of the game, just like forechecking or dumping and chasing.

But they should take seriously a man dying at 28 with a brain of a 90-year-old.

To reach Luke Graham, call 970-871-4229 or email lgraham@SteamboatToday.com