September 05, 2011
Hockey is a weird sport. While all of the major sports have games within the game, hockey is the only one that boasts a mini-game that often has no bearing on the outcome of the larger contest. Here, I'm referring to the hockey fight, and more specifically, the hockey fight that takes place between two tough guys.
Some argue that these enforcers act as a police presence, discouraging opponents from making runs at their best players. However, since these tough guys never share the ice with their best players (except for Paul Bissonnette(notes), who brags he once skated on a line with Evgeni Malkin(notes) and Sidney Crosby(notes) for eight entire seconds), that's a flimsy argument.
Enforcer fights, entertaining as they are, often have no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the larger contest. They're just a thing that happens, a sudden sideshow in which two tough guys drop all of the equipment necessary to play the actual game and stage a bare-knuckle boxing match.
It's absurd, and no one is more aware of this absurdity than the guys who demonstrate it on the ice. Most of them know full well that they are part of a strange and entirely separate class of hockey player — one that this awful summer of sudden deaths has shown to be misunderstood and under-supported.
For a lot of guys, not just heavyweights, all they knew was hockey. When they get into the real world, it is a struggle and they go into huge depression.
So if you're a tough guy, you have to deal with a lot of stuff. It would be normal that former players need help or counselling, but this is another issue.
We are supposed to be invincible. We are supposed to show no weaknesses. This is an ego job. You hide everything and the only people who know what you are going through are other tough guys.
Laraque's point is a quality one. The NHL's tough guys are a unique group, and a true understanding of what they go through is limited to others within that group.
But there's a second, underlying point: the role of the tough guy is, as Laraque puts it, a job.
It's a position the NHL has created, and now it's up to the League to give the same care and attention to this separate class of hockey player that they give to the "typical" players, for lack of a better word.
The problem is that it's difficult to care for a group of people whose issues you don't understand.
Tough guys are hybrids without a home, neither fully hockey player nor fully fighter. Unique as they are, it will require like minds to help them through their issues, which is why Laraque suggests a committee of tough guys:
The best solution would be to have a committee of former players who have fought before for a living, some guys who struggle with the job, some guys who had success, some big and small guys. That way, guys with problems would be more comfortable to talk about their issues and we would be able to find solutions together.
The NHL and the NHLPA also have to work hard together to find better programs for transition to life after hockey for their athletes. Even after their careers are done, those guys are a product in the NHL and we have to take care of them.
While Laraque's idea — a committee of hockey fighters — is a vision for counseling and support, it isn't difficult to imagine this committee going even further.
One assumes that the committee of former tough guys would be able to speak to the NHLPA on behalf of the current class of tough guys. As Laraque explained, the programs and doctors the NHLPA presently provides to them aren't effective, because they belie any real understanding of what the tough guys go through:
Boogaard, Rypien and Belak were all suffering from depression, but do you know how many more guys are in that situation right now and were just standing by waiting for the bad news to come? As you can see, those guys are not invincible and they also need help. The programs we have right now are not good enough.
Forget about the programs where you have some doctors with a PhD from Harvard who can come in and solve those issues. Players don't want to talk to a guy who has never played the game or even understand our struggles.
It's a leap, albeit a minor one, but if indeed Laraque feels that the tough guys need to be be better supported and represented, and he also feels that only other tough guys would do it properly, could he be suggesting they organize?
Rick Rypien(notes) was often described as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the NHL. That's a boxing term, and it was rightly applied to him. He was a boxer on skates. Many of today's enforcers are, and frankly, it seems strange to me that there isn't a governing body looking out for them as fighters. If they weren't on skates, there would be.
Laraque is right that these tough guys need more support, and it seems as though the NHLPA isn't equipped to provide it.
So then, do hockey's fighters need their own separate, representative body within the NHLPA?
Harrison is also the co-editor of the Canucks' blog Pass it to Bulis.