January 06, 2009
Don Sanderson had been in a coma for three weeks before dying last Friday, his injuries resulting from a hockey fight in which his helmetless head slammed onto the ice. The 21-year-old senior AAA defenseman for the Whitby Dunlops was mourned and honored during services yesterday in Ontario.
The debate that this tragedy has rekindled, however, rages on.
There have been plenty of anti-fighting pundits using Sanderson's death as a soapbox. But there have also been writers and fans like Matt Fleming of the Packet & Times that were so affected by Sanderson's death that they've flip-flopped on the fighting issue:
After the death of Don Sanderson, it can't be denied that fighting can be dangerous and it's surprising that something like this hasn't happened before. Players lose their helmets in fights all the time and fights usually end when one or both combatants fall to the ice.
And let's view fighting in hockey for what it is: bare-knuckle boxing on ice. Even in the most brutal forms of fight sport, fighters use padded gloves and matches take place on a slightly padded ring canvas, not a surface as hard as ice.
But what are staunch fighting advocates saying about the tragedy and its repercussions? When opinion pieces like "Fighting Has No Place in Hockey" are being published with frequency after Sanderson's death, it could be a seminal moment for this long-standing tradition in hockey.
David M. Singer is the founder of HockeyFights.com, one of the most popular communities on the Web for hockey pugilism enthusiasts. Until we reached out to him for comment, he had avoided any editorial analysis of the Sanderson tragedy.
Our conversation ranged from the incident that eventually took Sanderson's life to what this moment could mean for the future of fighting in the NHL.
PD: How does a guy who's built hockey's greatest digital shrine to fighting react when a 21-year-old player dies from injuries suffered in a hockey fight?
SINGER: I'm filled with nothing but sadness. He was so young, and all that I can think of is how his family and friends feel right now.
It seems as though some are treating this incident like the Brittanie Cecil tragedy: something that could act as a catalyst for radical change in hockey. In Cecil's case, she was struck by a puck and NHL arenas installed netting to protect fans. Do you believe the Sanderson tragedy will spark a similar reaction (or overreaction, depending on how one feels about it)?
Was adding netting really a radical change? While some fans may have been concerned with arena views, it didn't change the on-ice product. I don't think Mr. Sanderson's death will lead to any changes at the NHL-level, or possibly any other leagues.
The Ontario Hockey Association appears more concerned about players not "flipping their lids" than any sort of fighting ban. Do you think legislation about securing helmets could be coming at all levels of hockey after this?
Players are already ejected for fighting in the league Mr. Sanderson played in. They could add suspensions to deter players from fighting more, but a direct safety measure would be helmet-focused. Amateur leagues may look at creating or altering rules about equipment, but I doubt any professional leagues will. Many safety and equipment rules need to be approved by the players in pro leagues, and there's been no talk of change in that regard.
Anti-fighting critics appear to have amended the debate about dangerous checks and head shots by including hockey fights as a catalyst for head injuries. Do you think it's hypocritical to be outraged at hits to the head but an advocate for fighting? Do they belong under the same umbrella debate?
It may seem easy to lump it all together, but hits to the head and dangerous checks are about catching an opposing player off-guard. It's a one-way action, and there's little that the opposing player can do other than "keep his head up." With fights, it's generally mutually agreed upon. In one instance, a player is caught off-guard, in another he's not. Willingness by the players is the key difference.
As we've seen in the past during headline-grabbing incidents, there's police involvement in the Sanderson matter. As a hockey fan, this scares the bejeepers out of me, because there's always been the understanding that what happens in the rink stays in the rink (unless you're Todd Bertuzzi). But writers like Ken Campbell of The Hockey News believe that if the Leagues won't get rid of fighting, it could be up to the government to legislate it out. What are your thoughts of, for lack of a better term, "Imperial interference" in hockey?
Police involvement seems like just a formality in this situation. Outside of premeditation, or an irregular act (most likely involving stick or skate), there's little police activity. It'd be awfully difficult for government to legislate against fighting in one sport while allowing it as the sole purpose in others (boxing, martial arts).
Sports should govern themselves. I'm not interested in seeing hockey, or any other sport ruled by politicians.
Campbell also said the Sanderson injury wasn't an accident. Do you consider it an accident?
I'd consider it a freak, and obviously tragic accident. To imply otherwise is to take hockey fights out of context; and unless Mr. Sanderson's opponent, Cory Fulton, was purposely trying to use the ice to hurt Mr. Sanderson, this is very much an accident.
Do you even think about a fighting death in the NHL? Why or why not?
I don't think about a fighting death, but I suppose it's because I don't think about death and sports in general. I've seen players seriously maimed and injured over the years in all sports, but I've never watched a game thinking it could happen. Inevitably death will strike sports, especially contact sports, like hockey or football, all with different circumstances.
Can you ever envision a National Hockey League without fighting? What would happen, on the ice and off the ice, if the NHL curbed it to the point of non-existence?
While I wouldn't rule out seeing fighting banned one day, I hope it doesn't come to that. I watch a lot of different hockey and NHL hockey is by far my favorite. The style of game, which includes a lot of contact and fighting, paired with the skill level of the players makes it the best league in the world. The play in international leagues just seems muted in comparison.
One thing to also remember is that rules banning fighting don't amount to no fighting.