The one aspect that hockey is renowned for is the acceptance of fighting. No other team sport (other than lacrosse) allows fighting to take place. In other sports like baseball, football and basketball, the players who engage in fighting are ejected from the game and face some type of consequence from the league. This punishment can be in the form of a fine, suspension or a combination of both. Either way these sports do not have a tolerance for fighting. However, in hockey, it is still a big part of the game and can even be encouraged for players to do so. The issue with fighting is that it can have a negative impact on the player’s health later in life.
Enforcers, the players who were looked upon to fight on a regular basis, are expected game in and game out to be the agitator. To get under the other teams skin, and to be the one who sticks up and fights for their teammates so that the star players don’t have too. If a team heavily relies on these players to do this, then there is the potential for them to be in many fights during the course of a season. Fights in hockey may add to the excitement for the sport from a fans perspective, but a lot of these players, who fight regularly, have been shown to have serious health risks from it. These players can suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). According to neuroscientist Dr. Charles Tator, CTE is a “specific type of brain degeneration that occurs after repetitive trauma like multiple concussions”. Throughout their careers these players are suffering many concussions and many blows to the head that can trigger CTE. A former enforcer in the NHL, Mike Peluso, who has joined the concussion lawsuit against the NHL, said in an article for the Globe and Mail that “I suffered at least 10 concussions from fighting. Probably many more”. Suffering numerous head injuries can have serious consequences after their hockey careers are over. Former players can suffer from serious depression, among other symptoms as a result of this. Former NHL enforcers who have suffered from CTE and depression, Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard, have passed away at an early age from suicide or overdose. Wade Belak was also said to have suffered from depression and passed had committed suicide. He was only 35 years old. These are not the only cases as many other players are suffering from this as well.
According to neurosurgeon Robert Cantu, CTE is the result of a high concentration of protein that builds up in the brain where it should not. The highest concentration of protein occurs in the medial temporal lobe. The functions associated with this part of the brain are:
- Impulse control
When this part of the brain is damaged by CTE, they will experience problems with these functions.
Here is a list of ex-NHL enforcers who were well known around the NHL. These players have suffered from CTE and/ or depression and have passed away as a result of it
During their time in the NHL, they were expected to fight whenever necessary. The consequence of this was trainers and coaches forcing players back from injury before they were fully healed. Peluso mentions this and says that during a workout he had experienced a grand mal seizure; “I sat out for just two weeks before the team doctors again pushed me back onto the ice. I was never seen by a neurologist”.
In his paper, Dazed and Confused, Brad Partridge discusses “how player health and safety are not always the priority for some coaches”. He further goes on to say how team doctors often feel pressure from coaches to make a rushed decision to clear a player from injury despite the risks to their health. This is evident that this occurs in the NHL (and other sports as well) with concussions. The coaches and doctors may not always prioritize the player’s health due to the mentality of “winning comes first” in professional sports. As a result a player can be rushed back from injury before they are 100%. If they view themselves as part of the team, then the doctors may feel responsible for the result of a game based on their decision to allow a player to play or not. This pressure can further lead to players being prematurely cleared to play. In addition to this, coaches and doctors can feel added pressure from the owners due to the control they have over their jobs. This may result in them putting their jobs before the player’s health. This was evident with Mike Peluso, as he was rushed back to play even though he suffered from a serious seizure. His safety and welfare was not the priority.
Is it right to put the sport before a player’s health? Or at very least without informing the players of the possible health risks associated with playing? Peluso mentions that “we did whatever the league told us to do… foolishly believed they had our best interests at heart. The league failed to take care of us”. Additionally, Peluso wished that the players were sat down, and were informed about the effects it would have on their brains and how it could impact them years after they retired. It doesn’t seem fair for the players to give everything to the NHL and to the game, and in return, when it mattered most, for the NHL to not put their health first.
Throughout an NHL career, a regular fighter can receive countless punches to the head. The outcome of this can be devastating to their long- term health. Players who suffer from CTE will have to fight depression and other symptoms of this injury for the rest of their lives. A sad outcome of this is players have committed suicide to escape depression. No sport should be prioritized before a player’s health. As a result, I believe fighting in hockey should be banned as a player’s health should be the main priority.
Partridge, Brad. (2013). Dazed and Confused: Sports Medicine, Conflicts of Interest, and Concussion Management. 65-74. DOI: 10.1007/s11673-013-9491-2.