Kill fighting in hockey – before it kills another fighter

Todd Bertuzzi basically assaulted Steve Moore on the ice in 2004, ending Moore’s career and breaking vertebrae in his neck.

We used to stand and roar whenever Bob Probert wore that mean-looking scowl, as he dropped the gloves and readied to pound someone’s face. “The Joe” would rock and roll. The decibel levels shot through the roof. Troy Crowder. Bob McGill. Marty McSorley.

Whoever big No. 24 faced, they were gonna get a knuckle sandwich.

We thought “Probie” was some sort of hero, a warrior in the Winged Wheel, a symbol of blue-collared Detroit.

Little did we know, we were cheering his brain damage.

Look: Fighting has to be expelled from hockey, right here, right now. It’s proven to cause a host of long-term problems, most notably Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which was discovered inside Probert’s brain tissue in March of 2011, eight months after he died.

Each punch, he was deteriorating. Each blow, his life was worsening. When Tie Domi flashed the boxing-belt sign to Madison Square Garden in 1992, he should have pointed to Probert’s head, because that was the real mark of defeat.

Too harsh? Hey, those are the facts. And now that we’re well-informed, let’s honor Probie and kill the act of fighting. Let’s save the brains of those who are too proud to drop their so-called art-form, because the typical NHL enforcer will never admit fighting needs to go. They’ll puff their chest, talk about how their fists protects players, polices the game and eliminates high-sticks, when all along, it’s just their pride getting in the way.

And pride always leads to a fall.

Four deaths and a ruined reputation
Let’s talk about another fall: The reputation of Todd Bertuzzi.

Nine years ago, he coldcocked Colorado’s Steve Moore – a purely classless move. If Bertuzzi was a Chicago Blackhawks right wing today, you would call him gutless and dirty and question why he’s allowed to play hockey, all while Moore’s career ended during the Ugliest Incident in NHL History. But some of you ignore it since Bertuzzi wears a Red Wings sweater. You’re the guy who cheers for “the clothes,” according to Jerry Seinfeld.

Anyway, if fighting was banned, Bertuzzi never throws a sucker punch, Moore’s permanent brain injury and broken neck never happens, and Big Bert never visits a courtroom.

Oh, speaking of necks, it’s only a matter of time before someone’s skate slices a jugular vein, Clint-Malarchuk-style. That nearly happened last month, when Jordin Tootoo’s blade came dangerously close to the neck area of Columbus RW Derek Dorsett. Maybe we need gore to send the “expel-fighting” message.

Or, maybe we need someone to die again.

Did we say die? Oh, yeah. Ask Michael Sanderson, who would love to have his son, Donald, back here in the flesh. But he can’t. Donald’s dead. Thanks to an amateur-league hockey fight, he perished on Jan. 2, 2009.

Donald’s helmet slipped as he tumbled to the ice, his head struck the rock-hard surface, he went into a coma, and three weeks later, he was gone.

Yes, that was a senior-league game. But it’s hockey, and it’s fighting on the ice, and it was such a widespread issue among Canada and all hockey circles, even NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was forced to issue a statement about it.

But some of you don’t care. You think it’s a fluke. You think, besides that incident, fighting is harmless.

Well, here’s three names for you: Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien. They thought it was harmless, too.

They dropped the gloves, cherished the crowd rising to its feet and the adrenaline coursing through their veins. They loved the man-of-all-men status, the teammates who banged sticks against the boards, and the crowd that roared a gladiator-like victory.

But now they’re all dead, and their families are mourning while doctors talk about a possible link between depression and the punches to their cranium.

Boogaard had CTE. His brain damage was detailed in the New York Times piece called “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.” In his final years, he had severe nausea, blurred vision and depression. He would break down, sobbing. He spent “tens of thousands of dollars” on painkillers, according to the Times.

One night, he took oxycodone and added alcohol to his system. The next day, he never woke up.

Blame a sport that breeds violence, because ever since a 16-year-old Boogaard broke someone’s nose in his first junior hockey fight, he was hooked. It was his ticket to a successful career, and his inaugural victory was cherished by snickering scouts and coaches.

Not so funny anymore, is it?

There are no happy fighters
Still think fighting is OK?

The list is narrowing. Even the enforcers who traded punches for years criticize it.

“The mental part is really hard to cope with – the fact that the fighting is always in your mind, in your head,” ex-NHL enforcer Georges Laraque said to CBC in September of 2011 in regards to the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak. “A lot of people can’t deal with the pressure in their mind – and they use drugs and alcohol to deal with that.

“We’re talking about three players who passed away. But there’s about another 50 of them that used to be heavyweights that have problems with alcohol and drugs, because of that role.”

Translation: There aren’t many happy fighters in the world.

Rypien and Belak committed suicide. It’s not proven they had CTE, but they were both depressed. Was there a link between their mental health and repeated punches to the head? It seems so. From the fall of 2002 as an 18-year old, through his death in 2011, Rypien fought 97 times in either junior hockey, the AHL or NHL. Who knows how many times he fought during his youthful years. Belak had 136 fights in the NHL alone.

It begs the question: Who wants to absorb haymakers to the head? Or think about smashing someone else’s face? What can that do to your psyche? Dave Schultz didn’t necessarily like it, and he was the Philadelphia Flyers’ legendary tough guy of the Broad Street Bullies in the 1970s.

In his book, The Hammer: Confessions of a Hockey Enforcer, Schultz wrote that he had trouble sleeping before he played at the Boston Garden. He stressed about facing Terry O’Reilly, the Tasmanian Devil.

“The last thing I’d want to visualize was not doing well,” said Schultz, according to the Flyers’website.

O’Reilly was 6-foot-1, 200-pounds. That’s an average size by today’s standards, a new era where enforcers lift weights regularly and learn fighting skills from trainers. A punch from Toronto’s Colton Orr (6-3, 220) has CTE written all over it.

Think about that every time you watch Tootoo drop the gloves and put up his dukes. Are you gonna stand and cheer when he starts throwing and absorbing punches?

You might be cheering the road to dementia.

14 replies on “Kill fighting in hockey – before it kills another fighter

  • Dan Holmes

    Many fans will argue with you, many because of macho bravado. But I agree with you, Bruce. It’s silly for grown people to stand and cheer as “athletes” fight in a hockey game. What message do we send to our youth? what sort of society do we want to be?

  • Dwight Koslowski

    Did you even consider that some of those suicide/depression deaths could be due to the fact that some people cannot stand the sudden end of a career, with the attendant large paycheck and fan adoration, and are faced with a life for which they are totally unprepared ?

  • Rick Bak

    I don’t agree with some guy coldcocking another, like Bertuzzi did. But letting a couple guys go toeguard-to-toeguard? Nothing wrong with that. Just my opinion. But hell, you can’t make it sound like guys are dropping dead all over the ice. Hockey, like auto racing and prizefighting, is an inherently dangerous sport. It ain’t badminton or baseball, which is why we like it.

  • Mark Proulx

    I fully agree. If you need to watch fighting to feel better about yourself, go watch boxing, cage fighting, or heck, hang out at the nearest biker bar.

  • dave

    A lot of people think that Moore’s career was ended. He was eventually cleared to play, and offered a contract but didn’t agree with the money offered. Moore has lost more playing time from his decision than he did from the freak, one in a million injury he siffered that night.

  • dave

    If Moore had played by The Code and answered for his dirty hit on Naslund, Bert wouldn’t have had to hit like he did. Which wasn’t to the back of the head, it reached around and caught him above the eye. Moore went down after one hit, and then a dozen guys fell on his neck. And I’m suppose to believe the punch did him in?

  • Coach

    I totally agree with Bruce. Moore was never the same. Defending Bertuzzi on that play is senseless and without merit. Imagine someone did that to you while playing. Now you’re beginning to think! Bert sucks!! The Wings will never win a Cup with his sorry ass!!

  • GammaMan

    The feminization of football is making the NFL boring. I’d hate to see this happen to hockey. Probert was my favorite. Asham is fun to watch today!

  • Doug

    The only feasible way to eliminate fighting in the NHL is to widen the rink to the European width of 100 feet, nearly 20% more ice east/west. That will bring about a totally different style of play, one in which more skill will be needed, and there will be less bumping & grinding, and less hitting.

  • Mark

    No other sport condones such behavior on the playing surface. No other sport has a place on the roster for someone without playing skills whose only job it is to “inspire” his teammates and/or to enforce an antiquated “code” of behavior. Hockey has rules and penalties to sanction cheap hits and rules infractions, as do other sports. No other sport condones and encourages fighting.

    I’m sure that Todd Bertuzzi is a wonderful family man and teammate, with some (diminishing) hockey skills. Nevertheless, he ended Steve Moore’s career, and I was less than thrilled when the Red Wings decided (twice) that they needed what he brought to the team, along with his indelible reputation.

  • rick

    What everyone fails to mention or realize is it comes down to one simple fact. A lack of respect for another human being. It doesn’t matter if it’s hockey, football, soccer or whatever sport you want to choose. Until ALL player’s respect one another AND the game nothing will ever change. The truly sad thing is professional athletes are just super human sheep being led to slaughter by million and billionaire owners who could care less about them once they are of no use to them. They sometimes leave their families well off but mostly leave them broke and disillusioned. Professional sports is no different from gladiators fighting in the old days entertainment for people who thrive on other’s misery. There are not many athletes today who would or do play for the love of the game they play for the love of the money and fame what a shame! I pity today’s pro athletes. Ask Wes Welker how much Bob Krafft cares about him and his family? As for respecting each other does anyone out there remember a former d-lineman of the N.Y. Jets? He was paralyzed years ago but what people don’t realize is, he was injured as he was trying to spear an opponent. He had NO regard for his opponents safety and maybe God was watching or karma bit him. Hard to fill bad for anyone who gets hurt while they are trying to hurt someone else.

  • Brittany Maurer

    NHL records are very bad for fighting. For a normal issue the players start fighting in NHL match. As a result the victim player faces unnecessary injury. Hope it will be stopped soon.

  • Pat Pherson

    In some contexts it refers to permanent (or degenerative) brain injury, and in others it is reversible. It can be due to direct injury to the brain, or illness remote from the brain. In medical terms it can refer to a wide variety of brain disorders with very different etiologies, prognoses and implications. :**:

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