I love hockey.
I love the sound of the puck ringing off the post, especially when it’s the other team shooting. I love the thwuck of the goalie’s pads when he makes a pad save. I love the shick of the skates on the ice. I love the smell of the ice, the chanting of the crowd, the sea of team jerseys. I love the players’ nicknames, Godzilla, the Great Eight, Moose, Sudsy, Soupy, Snoopy, the Mayor, Super Mario, CuJo. I love singing the National Anthems, ours and Canada’s.
I love everything about hockey.
Last night, I was watching a replay of the game between the Arizona Coyotes and the Anaheim Ducks. Well, I should say, I was half watching, half listening. The color commentator for the Coyotes—Tyson Nash, a former player himself—did a flashback to a November 4th fight between the Coyotes’ Max Domi and the Ducks’ Ryan Kesler. Domi clocked Kesler, and he went down, hard. Nash said, “Kesler had the Bambi legs. He could barely get off the ice. I don’t know how he came back in that game.”
A few minutes later in the programming, he continued, “Now, I’m not saying I want to see anyone get hurt, but you love to see that—you love to see the physicality. It’s the fights. It’s the big hits. And then it’s the goals, in that order, when you look at what the fans get excited about…”
And I realized, I don’t love everything about hockey.
I used to. I loved the fights. Hit him hard and then hit him harder. Take him down to the ice. Hell, yeah. I loved the big hits, the ones that made the glass reverberate and left the other player dazed.
But you know what I love the most about hockey? I love the players—I’ve met a bunch and they’ve all been really great guys.
I love Chris Bourque, a little spark plug of a forward. I have the jersey he was wearing when he scored his first NHL goal with the Washington Capitals. By the time I got it in the mail, he was back in the AHL, playing for the Hershey Bears. The night he signed it for me, his whole family was there, and they were getting ready to leave when my son Bailey found Chris and told him I had his jersey. Chris made them all wait for me to hobble out back so he could sign it, including dad Ray—yes THAT Ray—Bourque.
I love Rod Langway, Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman, whom I got seated in a box with, somehow, and who took off his Stanley Cup ring and let my son try it on. He stuck his finger in his mouth so he could get it off.
I love Jamie Heward. After practice one day, he found out my friend and fellow fan had broken her leg so he walked over to her car to say hello. After he was traded, I flew out to see the Kings play the Sharks in San Jose, so I could say goodbye. His wife got me a pass to get downstairs. He gave me a big hug and said, “I can’t believe you came all this way to see me.”
I love Alex Ovechkin. His rookie year, my son gave him a picture of the two of them which I had taken. We framed it, and my son had signed it “To Alex, from your biggest fan, Bailey.” Bailey asked him for a stick and Alex said he’d give him one. It took maybe six months of Alex saying “Next time, ok buddy” in a heavy Russian accent before he delivered it, but he was true to his word. I asked him to sign it pretty, and he did, with a heart, giggling the whole time.
There are more, many more stories of players I have met who were kind and considerate when they didn’t have to be, but they all have this other thing in common: I wouldn’t want any of them to get hurt.
This is why I find Nash’s comments disturbing.
Hockey is a physical sport. Of course, at some point, everyone gets injured. I’m not talking about minor injuries and things that aren’t preventable or easily mitigated. No, what I’m talking about here is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or “CTE” for short.
CTE is caused by repetitive hits to the head that result in brain injury, both concussive and subconcussive. Previously only diagnosable post-mortem because the symptoms mimic several other brain diseases that result in dementia, new research at UCLA supported by the Brain Injury Research Institute may allow doctors to diagnoses this disease in the living.
The researchers at UCLA have found a protein, called the TAU protein, which accumulates in the brain after injury. Not only could the visualization of this protein via PET scan be the key to diagnosis, discovering a method of preventing or reducing them from forming or removing them after formation could prevent or mitigate the disease itself.
Unless or until that occurs, they only way to control this disease is to control the number of brain injuries suffered over time.
Shamefully, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman denied there is a link between concussions and CTE, instead blaming the media for “fanning the fear” and calling the NHL approach to concussion science “more measured” in response to questions in July 2016. More than 100 players have filed a class-action lawsuit against the NHL, stating in part that they were not warned of the risks of repetitive head injuries. Moreover, they also claim the NHL promoted in-game violence while failing to provide adequate “oversight and care” for brain injuries. In a 2011 email uncovered by the lawsuit between Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, Daly acknowledged that “fighting raises the incidence of head injuries/concussions, which raises the incidence of depression onset, which raises the incidence of personal tragedies.”
And yet in the intervening years, fighting has only not been outlawed but continues to be promoted by the NHL.
- After the 2011 death of Derek Boogaard.
- After the 2015 arson conviction of Stephen Peat.
- After the 2015 death of Steve Montador.
Enforcers like Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, Stephen Peat, and Derek “Boogeyman” Boogaard are the most disposable of players in the NHL. They are generally the least skilled, the lowest compensated, and easiest to replace. Beginning in youth hockey, teams exploit these less-skilled but usually hulking young men.
Fight, and we’ll let you play.
Fight and we’ll let you play. That is Boogaard’s story. He played for six seasons in the NHL. Over that time, he amassed 589 penalty minutes and a paltry three goals. His final contract paid $1.6 million a year to break his hands or someone else’s nose, or both.
Enforcers are not expected to score goals. They are not expected to play great defense. They are expected to brawl. While the crowd cheers and the color commentators gush about “fierce competitors,” they are expected to break their bodies and the bodies of their opponents on national television. And they are expected to get up, shake it off, and go again.
Meanwhile, CTE lurks in the murky future, like a shark waiting to attack.
Bettman knows. Daly knows. The teams know. Most of the fans know. These men are literally killing themselves so that the can play hockey, a game they love.
Not every concussion can be prevented, but if fighting were banned, how many fewer concussions would there be? How many fewer Derek Boogaards and Stephen Peats would there be? Read either of their stories and tell me a “good fight” is worth what they and their families have endured.
“Now, I’m not saying I want to see anyone get hurt, but you love to see that—you love to see the physicality. It’s the fights. It’s the big hits. And then it’s the goals, in that order, when you look at what the fans get excited about…”
And there’s the rub. When two players fight, you ARE seeing someone get hurt.
I don’t love everything about hockey anymore.
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