August 16, 2011
Rick Rypien's(notes) death on Monday marked the second time this year someone has arrived at the home of a young NHL player who fought his way into the profession — literally and figuratively — to find that player had suddenly died.
Being that we're hockey fans, the third reaction to these stories, following shock and bereavement, is inevitably defensiveness.
Down Goes Brown probably spoke for the masses when he wrote:
We expect that criticism of the more physical elements of the game, and their debilitating effects, because we know it'll arrive from outsiders who crack their knuckles over their keyboards when there's an opportunity to paint hockey as barbaric. The basketball columnists who think the NHL "should be more like the Olympics." Those guys.
But what we're seeing with more frequency are completely reasonable people within the hockey community openly questioning how fighting and physical play affect guys like Rick Rypien that are battling their down demons. These aren't questions from the accepted pacifists in the community like Adam Proteau of The Hockey News, but from people who essentially state the following:
'I like fighting. I just don't know if I can stomach it any longer.'
As of Tuesday morning, the motivations behind Rypien's death aren't known. But the fact he passed away after playing a role in the NHL that as seen its share of tragedies is enough to influence that sentiment.
Symptoms of CTE include depression and suicidal tendencies. We don't know anything about Rick Rypien's death today but if anybody wants to place a cash bet that it wasn't suicide and he didn't have CTE I'm willing to give you good odds. Ultimately we, the fans who pay for tickets and cheer for fights, are responsible for the men who sacrifice their brains for our entertainment. This isn't intended to be a sanctimonious lecture on the evils of fighting because I stood up for every fight I ever saw in a hockey rink.
I don't think people who like fights are troglodytes because when I woke up this morning I was a fan of hockey fights. Speaking as someone who's had some serious brain trauma though the stories of Derek Boogaard, Bob Probert and others have been on my bruised mind for a while. I like watching fights and I like it when players fight but I just don't think I can support it anymore so count me out.
Peter Raaymakers of the Ottawa Senators blog Silver Seven penned an eerily timely post called "The Human Toll of Fighting" that published the morning before Rypien's death. The case against the quasi-legality of fighting included the physical toll and the use of drugs to help with pain or anxiety; as for what the NHL should do:
If others, like me, come to the conclusion that a couple minutes of hockey fights simply isn't worth it, then we need to look at what we can do about reducing the frequency of fighting in the league, and reducing the number of players who join the league strictly as enforcers. The first and most obvious step is harsher penalties for fights.
Although the Olympics and US College hockey are vastly different from NHL hockey, play at those levels is evidence that if strict penalties are placed on fighting, fighting will decline. Were the NHL to make the penalty for fighting a five-minute major plus a game misconduct, staged fights--which even the most ardent supporter of fighting would likely agree are meaningless and unnecessary--should decrease. Add the caveat that, should the fight happen in the final 10 minutes of the game, that ejection carries forward to the next game, and say (for good measure) that they team can't dress anyone in your place if you fight and we're making progress at eliminating most of the fights we see in the NHL today.
Here's where we are as a hockey community in 2011:
For several years, news about brain injuries and concussions have gone from a necessary evil for professional hockey players to what's considered an epidemic. Calls for player responsibility and respect were ineffective; so the NHL had to step in and ban blindside hits before further banning pretty much any non-incidental contact with the head.
Meanwhile, on another bottom line, fighters were still beating the hell out of each other.
The concern for one class of players over another made for a rather uncomfortable situation for the NHL and for fans: How can one passionately call for the league to create rules that protect stars from brain damage while allowing two guys to bare-knuckle punch each other's skulls with negligible penalties?
We've reached a crisis of faith for some fans that have admittedly enjoyed fights for the entirety of their hockey lives, but who now are having second thoughts.
But for other fans — and I count myself among them — the brain injury epidemic is a product of an inherently violent game.
I'll never apologize for being pro-fighting. It's the game I grew up with, and I've always felt that players enter the NHL accepting that it's part of the gig. In some cases, players would have never made the show without fighting. It can be said that Rypien was one of those players.
As Jeff Marek wrote on Sportsnet, Rick Rypien "was a troubled person." Every sport has them. It's just that the more physical sports seem to have them end up dead. The NFL has had suicides of current and former players. Boxing had four of them in the span of a year. Try watching a professional wrestling pay-per-view from the last 20 years without seeing a wrestler who's died tragically since then.
Banning fighting is seen as an easy fix because its detractors see it as superfluous: Red meat tossed to bloodthirsty fans, as much a gate attraction as Alex Ovechkin(notes). They see it as a macabre form of entertainment rather than having a "place in the game" as so many pro-fighting pundits can reasonably argue.
If the NHL banned fighting tomorrow, would another player ever take a painkiller? Or a sleeping pill? Or both? Would another NHL player drink a bit much to calm his nerves while popping a pill? Would another NHLer succumb to depression given the agony and ecstasy of his profession and the excruciating time away from family that comes with the gig?
To say the physical toll of fighting doesn't exacerbate the problems for a hockey player is a head-in-the-sand position. But to say fighting is at the heart of these problems is also naive.
I still feel we're in the treatment phase of these issues, and the NHL and the NHLPA need to really examine how they go about educating players about their treatment options.
But the more tragedies we witness, the more science tells us about CTE and other brain damage, the more likely it is that the NHL will stop waiting for the culture to change and legislate most forms of fighting-for-show out of the game. Even if many of us feel it will fundamentally change the product.
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