Luke Graham

Luke Graham

Luke Graham: The NHL needs to ban fights

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Luke Graham

Luke Graham's column appears periodically in the Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4229 or lgraham@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Luke here.

— 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

Comments

rhys jones 2 years, 3 months ago

Most of the fights would qualify as assault and battery in any other venue.

They make the NHL a bad joke.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 3 months ago

But the part of how much he liked Rob Ray frames the NHL's dilemma. It'd ban what he considered his favorite sort of player. The stands erupt when there is about to be a fight, not a collective moan at players unable to control themselves. His favorite player was not some elegant skill player, but a clever goon. So NHL hockey can ban fighting and cease to upset people that are not fans while alienating current fans that like the fights.

Is it hockey or soccer on ice?

Don't get me wrong, I think fighting in hockey ruined the sport in North America, but by failing to limit it with automatic multiple game suspensions they have made it such an expected part of the game that it is real hard for them to do anything about it now. The NHL will probably not ban fighting, but will give suspensions for hits to the head so fights will be limited to body punches or wrestling moves pinning opponents.

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darkstar 2 years, 3 months ago

I dunno, I feel like this is sort of misdirected. I guess it's fine to have something against fighting, or fighting in an organized sport or whatever, but I think it's hard to support the argument that the NHL should ban fighting because it causes brain injury when there are so many other facets of hockey that can cause traumatic brain injury.

Look at Eric Lindros....one of the better players of recent years, had to retire as a result of traumatic brain injuries (concussions) but he wasn't a fighter. Open ice checking did him in. Boarding, cross checking, whatever, it's all dangerous. Personally, I have nothing against the fighting that goes on...call it traditionalism or whatever, but thats how I like it. We should probably just ban boxing outright because every single one of those cats is taking on brain damage right?

I'll just throw out there that sometimes when you take on a profession or a job you know that there are going to be risks associated with it.....if you're a fire fighter, you gotta know that maybe someday you could get trapped in a fire, or if you're a police officer you could get shot or get in a serious accident, electricians get electrocuted or what not. There are short term and long term risks and consequences associated with every profession....you would hope that athletes would consider the huge sums of money they receive a trade-off for the physical tolls they exude on their bodies? In this case, don't they also have the choice as to whether or not they want to participate in a fight and put themselves at risk?

In short, don't nanny up hockey because you don't like fights.

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rhys jones 2 years, 3 months ago

They can all beat each other's brains out, for all I care.

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rhys jones 2 years, 3 months ago

I forget the NFL DB's name, for the Steelers I believe, killed two guys with vicious blind-side hits during games. The NFL paid off the families, changed the rules, and quietly drummed this guy out of the league.

Just part of the game, right?

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Cory Prager 2 years, 3 months ago

Rhys Jones and Scott Wedel do you guys comment on every article on this site? You both sure have an opinion on everything. As for fighting in Hockey I believe it is an important part of the game.A fight can be used as a momentum change and it also makes sure that the game does not get out of control( bench clearing brawls). I do not condone cheap shots but a good clean fight is part of hockey if you don't like it turn the TV to golf. So Rhys and Scott if you would like to be educated on the sport of Ice hockey let me know I will give you my number and we can lace up our skates.

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rhys jones 2 years, 3 months ago

Cory -- I don't skate, but I do box. I've got nothing against a fair fight. Leave your stick at home.

As far as commenting on all the forums, look again. I don't comment where I am not qualified, or just plain don't care. This one barely scratched my interest, but it gets better all the time.

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Cory Prager 2 years, 3 months ago

You get my respect Rhys Jones. I like your Style

Here your comment that won me over.

We should form a Forums club for us regulars, maybe meet once a month somewhere.

The anonymous could come incognito with name tags (as if we couldn't figure it out) maybe just a paper bag a la Unknown Comic; we'd have an intellectual corner where they could look down on everybody, and I'll supply boxing gloves and head gear, for when things really liven up.

Sound like fun to you too?

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rhys jones 2 years, 3 months ago

Cory -- You still like the Forum-club idea? I really think we should do that. I'd really like to see some of the faces behind the posts. We're all 10 feet tall and smart as a whip, here anyway.

You sound like an interesting sort yourself, Mr. Prager. Cheers to you too!!

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 3 months ago

Hockey is played in college, Europe and international competitions such as the Olympics without fighting being part of the game. Sure there can be fights, but fighting is a game misconduct followed by multiple game suspensions.

The NFL understands that having star players dying young hurts the sport. Fans like their heroes. So the NFL sees the danger of repeated brain trauma and is making that a higher priority than what had been legal hits. And no Steeler DB killed anyone during a game. 70s Raiders had Jack Tatum that knocked the helmet off of Sammy White in the Superbowl and paralyzed Daryl Stingley of New England for which he never apologized saying it was a clean hit.

Soccer had a period of time where thugs on the field could make skilled players reluctant to possess the ball and hooliganism made it dangerous to attend games. They changed the rules to favor the skilled players by making fouling a lot easier to get a yellow card and straight red for a foul that denied a goal scoring opportunity followed by game suspensions. So now the thugs are gone, the skilled players dominate and attendance and TV ratings are up. They have the money to make Lionel Messi the highest paid athlete on a team sport at about $40M a year. That is more than twice what Lebron James makes, for instance.

They also forced games to be without any fans as punishment for out of control fans so most all teams quickly learned how to control their fans. So hooliganism is much less of a problem.

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skidattle 2 years, 3 months ago

"I forget the NFL DB's name, for the Steelers I believe, killed two guys with vicious blind-side hits during games" What?????, can you give a time frame on that one. Been watching NFL football for over 40 years. NEVER saw nor heard of a player being KILLED on the field, let alone twice by hits from the same player. Are you kidding?

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rhys jones 2 years, 3 months ago

I knew someone would call me on this one, and I unfortunately cannot verify it with Google at this time. The fatalities did not occur on the field, but later as a result of traumatic brain injury, and were buried by the NFL. I wish I could name the documentary I recently viewed this on. These deaths were what led to the 5-yd rule beyond which it is illegal for a DB to hit a receiver without the ball.

I don't care if you believe me or not. Are you suggesting I made this up?

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 3 months ago

Yes I think you got it badly wrong.

What you probably saw was a documentary on players including two that played for the Steelers that SUFFERED from traumatic brain damage from their careers. One former Steeler was found to have it after he committed suicide and Hall of Famer Mike Webster was found to have it after his death at age 50.

Mike Webster's case was a bit special because his issues were documented by the NFL at the end of his career so there is no denying that it was caused by his football career.

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rhys jones 2 years, 3 months ago

No, that is not what I am referring to. But thank you for being so helpful and informative, as always.

Maybe the TV lied to me, or maybe I just imagined it. I've wasted enough time on this already. Just forget what I said, eh? Next time I'll have my sources aligned.

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rhys jones 2 years, 3 months ago

Cory -- When you place me in the same category with Scott, you cut me to the quick.

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jk 2 years, 3 months ago

As we all know the tv often lies, so can google, (depending on the angle with which you view things), but it is nice to have your ducks in a row.

Maybe too many pabst blue ribbons, or too much of the glorious herb?

"As far as commenting on all the forums, look again. I don't comment where I am not qualified"??

Happy Holidays

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rhys jones 2 years, 3 months ago

I'm not taking it back, and I know what I saw.

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Brent Boyer 2 years, 3 months ago

If anyone is interested in the New York Times' three-part series on Boogaard (and I highly recommend it), here's the link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/sports/hockey/derek-boogaard-a-boy-learns-to-brawl.html?_r=1

Brent

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Scott Glynn 2 years, 3 months ago

Fighting absolutely has a place at the NHL level. Enforcers are there to ensure that star players have the ability to perform their craft. In 1986 Wayne Gretzky had Marty McSorley opening up the ice for him. McSorley-50 PIM's that year. Even if they were all 5 minute fighting penalties thats 10 fights. Take out the occasional roughing, tripping, hooking calls its probably closer to 6. 1961 Bobby Hull had Reg Fleming who opened the ice by leading the team with 27 penalty minutes. The NHL is a business first and foremost and if the stars are not able to create their plays for fear of being "run" by less skilled players with no fear of retribution, then the fans will not have a product to watch. Boogaard, Belak, Probert, are all tragic cases, and while their brains had significant trauma there were also other factors that contributed to their situations. Teams must have the ability to put fans in the seats. To put fans in the seats, you have to win games. To win games you need good players on the ice. To have good players on the ice you need fans in the seats. The vicious cycle of all professional teams. Enforcers roles diminish once they have attained a level of respect. Todays "elite" enforcer must also have the ability to produce in the 25-30 point range and accept the challenges of the up and coming young tough guy who is looking to fill that role for their team.

Hockey is unlike any other sport in that the loyalties to your teammates is a bond that cannot or never will be broken. This is a lunch pail and hard hat type of game and the players on the ice go all out for each other 82 times a season. It is a physical game, and occasionally the physicality can cross the line requiring that player to be penalized. That penalty can come from the officials, but often times the penalty can come from your opponent.

If you really wanted to clean up the dirty play, outlaw visors, and cages. There are a lot of players willing to go high on an opponent because they wont get hurt by doing it. These are the plays that lead to enforcers having to police the ice.

That being said, there is absolutely no place for fighting at the amateur level.

Scott Glynn USA Hockey Level 3 Official USA Hockey Level 4 Coach

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rhys jones 2 years, 3 months ago

When Randy Gradishar was one of the best linebackers in the NFL, he never got involved with the taunting and fights, because he said it took away from his concentration on the game.

Buddy Ryan and Al Davis were all about intimidation and fighting -- "Take out their starting QB" was Ryan's total strategy. Lorenzo Lynch said he'd hit Elway's knees at any opportunity. In my opinion this is a loser's strategy, because what it essentially says is "Our guys can't beat your guys in a fair game, so we're going to reduce it to our level."

I would think that, ideally, hockey would be about positioning, checks, passing, saves, and other real strategies, not who has the toughest guys. The fights detract from the game, not enhance it, in my naive opinion. I'm sorry your game has degraded to the level it has, which is why I don't watch. I don't watch WWF either.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 3 months ago

Well, so how do Europeans, that make up so many of the skilled players of the NHL ever learn how to play coming from international hockey that prohibits fighting?

Who were those that often got into fights for the Raiders or Bears? Fighting is a quick 15 yard penalty in the NFL. Yeah, the Bears wanted to knock out the opposing quarterback, but not in a fight, but by blitzing and sacking him every time he tried to throw the ball. Bears did not invent hitting the opposing quarterback. What that 46 defense invented was scheme of blitzing that attacked the offense on every play. The Raiders had two safeties that loved to hit opposing receivers. When given a choice between stepping in front of a receiver to intercept a pass or crush a receiver they usually picked the legal big hit.

There is a massive difference between legally hitting the person with the ball or puck vs having fist fights.

How do you free up the ice for the skilled players? You have the NHL and USA Hockey officials that believes fighting is the solution. Or you have the rest of the world that relentlessly calls obstruction, hooking, cross checking and all the other illegal tricks used by less skilled player to impede the skilled players. There would still be room for players like Scott Stevens whom can deliver crushing hits to those that skate with the puck with their heads down because those are legal hits. And players like that certainly physically intimidate because they hit hard, but that is not the same as having guys on the team whose main responsibility is to be a punishing fist fighter.

Since international hockey which Canada and USA participate and Olympic hockey has solid ratings and exciting games does not allow fighting then it is silly for the NHL and fans of fighting to claim that fighting is a needed part of the game. NHL skilled stars are still the best players on the ice. But as commentators frequently note, it forces NHL players to avoid penalties that are not called in the NHL and avoid fighting which is a game misconduct and a game or two suspension.

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rhys jones 2 years, 3 months ago

Scott -- Your brain is so scrambled, I can't figure out what it is you're saying. I think you talk just to talk. Do you have a job? What ELSE fills your day?

Now they're comparing me to you. Difference is, I know when to shut up, and that time has come.

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rhys jones 2 years, 3 months ago

I'm sorry, Scott. No hard feelings. I'm sure it ain't easy being you.

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 3 months ago

Ok, I'll break it down. You said Raiders and Bears were all about fighting and intimidation. What fights? The Bears knocked out opposing team quarterbacks by sacks or hitting the quarterback as he was throwing which is legal and part of the game. The Raiders were also a hard hitting team, especially their safeties. But neither team intimidated other teams by having fighters because fights are not allowed by the NFL and result in 15 yard penalties and being expelled from the game.

As for Scott Glynn's comment that fighting is part of hockey so that skilled players have the ability to perform - international and European hockey does not allow fights, but they develop skill players. Thus, it is possible to have skill players able to show their skills without having enforcers and fights.

The European international form of hockey is still an entertaining skillful game as judged by fan interest during Olympics and the World Championships. A notable difference between NHL and international hockey is that they call a tighter game and do not allow the away from the puck physical contact of the NHL. So instead of the NHL's solution of having a goon to beat up the guy messing with the skilled player, international hockey calls the fouls to start with.

Thus, the NHL could easily enough change the rules to ban fights by giving long suspensions for fights and could change the refereeing standards to give skilled players room to operate. But the real issue is that NHL fans have come to expect fights and it is questionable whether they could ban fights without losing fans.

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cheesehead 2 years, 3 months ago

Scott, you've made some ineresting and valid points that actually pertain to the article. cut it out.

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cheesehead 2 years, 3 months ago

don't ya hate it when a smart ass can't spell?

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Scott Glynn 2 years, 3 months ago

From The Hockey News:

Number of European players in NHL at its lowest since 1998-99

2010-06-18 10:38:00

The number of Europeans participating in NHL play is the lowest it has been in more than a decade.

According to a report released by the IIHF, Europeans account for just 23.7 percent (228 of 962 players) of the 962 players who played at least one game during the 2009-2010 season; an average of 7.6 European players per team.

Numbers have been steadily decreasing since the lockout, according to the report.

The report indicated the forming of the Kontinental League accounted for part of the decrease, as well as a lack of blue chip prospects being produced by European countries.

Sweden, the report says, has overtaken the Czech Republic as the prime producer of European players.

The number of Europeans in the NHL is now the lowest it has been since the 1998-1999 season, when the league averaged just 7.33 Europeans per team. In 2003-04, 300 European players (29.5 percent of the league) suited up in the NHL, which represents the most all-time.

End of article.

Amateur hockey in North America does not allow fighting either. The skills are being developed with equal intensity on this side of the pond as well.

Players are bigger and faster than they used to be. There is not as much room on the ice as there once was. If the mid to lower level player is allowed to make a name for himself without fear of retribution then the star players will be targeted for borderline hits. These hits will lead to injuries, leading to missed games, leading to not having your stars on the ice.

Fighting in hockey is done between combatants who have consented to squaring off. It is not a "dirty" play designed to hurt someone. It is a player challenging another player after a play has crossed the line that says "We will not let you do that to any of us" It is the support of your teammates and one of the most galvanizing occurrences in a locker room. More often than not at the end of a hockey fight you will here the combatants tell each other "Good throw"

As for the contention that there is no fighting in the European leagues, check this out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FylYRA...

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Scott Wedel 2 years, 3 months ago

Scott Glynn, Good info, Funny video.

Sure there is fighting in all sports at all levels. The critical difference is that it is not condoned and results in game suspensions.

Though, the argument why fighting is needed in the NHL is barely explained. The NHL is unique among sports to have fighting ingrained as part of the game to the extent that every team is expected to have someone on the game roster for his fighting skills.

It would seem that fighting is being used as a solution in the NHL instead of stricter refereeing as is done in international hockey. A more direct way to protect skill players from borderline hits is to call penalties on borderline hits. I've noticed that international hockey and college hockey limit hits to the player with the puck and the moment the player passes the puck is when defenders are to start letting up and avoid the hit. I am amazed when watching a NHL game how it is encouraged to hit players after they've passed the puck. Those are not bang bang plays, but the checker taking 3 strides to hit the person after making the pass and is called finishing your checks.

I am more of a fan of basketball and soccer than hockey. Now days players make flying leaps to dunk the ball over defenders. There was a time which that was a suicidal move because defenders would undercut moves like that and the player would land on his head. The change was in the rules on deliberate fouls and referees calling it because they decided that fans overall like the athletic plays more than the tough guys.

Soccer likewise had a period where less skilled players would relentlessly foul the skilled players. Players like Maradonna were routinely fouled every time they touched the ball. Soccer changed the rules so that a foul on the player is much easier to result in a yellow card and told refs to give a second yellow/red for those fouls even though it really changes the game when one team is a player short. Soccer also added a rule giving a red card for a foul that denies a goal scoring opportunity. So now the skill players have taken over. Defenders can no longer stick a leg out and hope it hits the ball and know that at least it will stop the player. That is now a yellow or red card foul. So now the game is dominated by skill players. Soccer also decided that fans prefer skilled players over the tough guys making crunching tackles.

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