WINNIPEG Any attempt to clean concussions out of the NHL and the sport of ice hockey is surely an admirable venture.
Two summers ago when NHL tough guys Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak all died of apparent suicides, it became disturbingly easy to link connections between hockey fighting, the chronic brain swelling now being found in medical studies of pro athletes that take too many concussive blows to the head, and potentially dangerous mental illness.
There has been clamoring to outlaw hockey fighting because it was clearly turning NHL players into the ticking human time bombs that have become all-too familiar in the NFL over the past few tragic years.
It was part of the thesis for a Boston Globe column by Chris Gasper last week calling for fighting to be banned in the NHL. It also rekindled the issue in the city of Boston where hockey fighters are celebrated cult heroes and the big, bad style of old time hockey is still respected, revered and fully understood. But a funny thing has happened to the Chicken Little element of the hockey world looking to outlaw hockey fighting as the last two years have unfolded: Things didnt get worse, and instead its starting to look like those three fatal incidents were more coincidental than troubling trend.
Fighting is up over 20 percent in the NHL this season from last year, and both the usage of the Quiet Room and the mandatory 7-10 days out of the lineup instituted by the league after a diagnosed concussion are methods that are working.
Concussions are up across the NHL from 10 years ago, but in a strange way thats a good thing. It means concussions are being more accurately reported and treated with a gravity that perhaps wasnt present among all NHL medical staffs in the he had his bell rung mentality of NHL yesteryear.
The Shawn Thornton incident from a couple of weeks ago might be perhaps the perfect example of the NHL concussion protocol working in the proper way. Thornton was dinged up in a one-sided brawl with 6-foot-8 monster John Scott to the point the Bruins enforcer entered the penalty box asking NHL officials if hed just been in a fight.
That was seconds after scraping himself up off the ice, and was the first clear indicator hed suffered a concussion.
It was the first diagnosed concussion for Thornton during his six years filling the enforcer role for the Black and Gold, and that includes 87 fights since the winger first signed with Boston prior to the 2007-08 campaign. He sat out his 10 days and then returned without any lingering issues or symptoms, and he hasnt experienced any complications afterward as a 35-year-old enforcer playing in a young mans game.
Thornton rightfully gets indignant when anybody uses a single incident of a concussion in a brawl between experienced fighters to ignite the argument that fighting should be eliminated from the NHL.
"I don't like when people try and take advantage of the situation," said Thornton to CSNNE.com more than a week ago while still recovering from his concussion. "It's part of their agenda. There's fighting in hockey. It's in the game. I think it's a necessary part of the game. I don't think it's going anywhere, so there's no point in really even dwelling on it.
I'm a big boy. I know what I'm getting into."
Here are the facts about hockey fights in the NHL: They account for less than 10 percent of all concussions in the NHL and are not even close to the biggest cause of head injuries in hockey. In a study done 10 years ago by the NHL it was found that centers were twice as likely to suffer concussions as defensemen and forwards. By and large, these are not the fighters, the enforcers, the goons.
The centers are the talented, playmakers in the NHL that are skating in the danger zone areas in the middle of the ice, and sport a natural target on their backs given that theyre typically the most skilled players on the ice.
So outlawing hockey fighting is doing next-to-nothing to solve the concussion problem in the NHL, and would instead simply do the opposite it. The banning of hockey fights would be exacerbating the concussion problem. The dangerous faction of NHL players like Matt Cooke and Raffi Torres -- who seem to pop up at least once or twice a season in regrettable plays that lead to other players getting injured -- would act with more frequency and impunity. The lack of accountability by force would also multiply the number of Cooke-type characters in the league, and thats not a good thing.
Suddenly instead of every team employing an NHL enforcer to keep the peace, each team would be forced to employ a certifiable NHL rat, constantly flirting with going over the line and hurting fellow players. Outlawing fighting would have the opposite intended effect, and it could very well turn hockey into something much more like the NFL: a place where predatory players roam free and engineer dangerous hits on unprotected, vulnerable opponents.
Hockey is the only sport where players have a actual weapon in their hands during play. Sticks can damage eyes and snap wrist bones like twigs. Hockey is also the only major pro sport where there is no out of bounds or foul territory if a player is targeted on the ice.
No matter how much pundits would like to say the NHL needs to get rid of fighting and conform to the other big three sports, hockey will always be its own entity because of its nuances.
If any altruistic soul truly wants to rid the NHL of concussions or at least lessen them significantly there are some pretty simple steps to follow.
First, the NHL would need to reduce the size of elbow and shoulder pads -- as well as the hard material used to make them -- that currently make hockey players look like knights from King Arthurs Round Table. The risk of injuring yourself would reduce the reckless abandon used on the ice.
Second, the NHL needs to reinstitute the red line to help slow down the action: higher skating speeds, combined with the size and strength of this generations hockey players contributes greatly to head injuries on plays that used to be routine in old time hockey.
Third, NHL referees need to allow interferenceobstruction away from the puck. Defensemen formerly used this technique to slow down fore-checkers that were looking to pick up a head of steam before they blasted the puck-retrieving defenseman behind the net. Players were allowed to use their bodies to get in the way and slow down attackers prior to the 2004-05 lockout, and hence the NHL game became much faster and more dangerous after that work stoppage.
Of course these changes would probably lead to more shoulder and elbow injuries for NHL players, and they would certainly slow down a brand of hockey thats become fast, exciting and attractive in the eight years since the rules were changed.
The question becomes whats more important: making changes that might improve the safety of NHL players, or leaving things at the status quo. But those that think eliminating hockey fights is the panacea hockey has been searching for in reducing the NHL's concussion problem are taking the very short-sighted view of a massive, complex, all-encompassing issue.
NHL hockey a contact sport that will always have some level of risk and danger associated with it, and thats what the players signed up for when they started playing the game as children.