TORONTO – The horrifying death of Don Sanderson as a result of hitting his head on the ice during a fight has stirred debate over the merits of fisticuffs like no other event in hockey history. It is no longer good enough to say players don’t get hurt during fights. It is no longer acceptable to say fighting is an integral part of the game. Death does that to an argument.
Don Sanderson was 21 when he died on January 2, three weeks after hitting his unprotected head on the ice during a fight while playing for the Whitby Dunlops, an amateur team in the Ontario Hockey Association in Canada.
While some people continue to say fighting should stay in the game – and others say it should be eliminated immediately – the best thing to come of Sanderson’s passing is that now most people agree that something has to be done. The only question is what.
Of course, it’s impossible to eradicate fighting completely from the game. Leagues can make more stringent rules and go to greater lengths to dissuade fighting, but a fight will always break out now and again. You cannot eliminate bench-clearing brawls in baseball, or punching during the heat of the occasional soccer game, and hockey – the only sport played in a confined area – is no different. But you can certainly make tougher penalties and reduce the sheer number of fights substantially.
On Wednesday, January 14, commissioner Dave Branch of the Ontario Hockey League started to move toward to a fight-free game by increasing punishment for players removing their own or their opponent’s helmet during a fight.
This is without question a watershed moment in hockey history. The OHL requires the use of visors for all skaters, so as of today if two players want to fight they’re going to have to punch at an opponent’s helmet and shield. One broken hand will be enough to deter even the hardened brawler from doing this very often. In short, fighting in the OHL is on its way out.
Actually, Quebec police took a significant first step even before Branch issued his edict on Wednesday. On July 31, 2008, provincial police charged goalie Jonathan Roy, son of Patrick, with assault, for his part in a brawl. The younger Roy went after his opponent in the far crease, attacking Bobby Nadeau of Chicoutimi, who had no interest in fighting.
The one-sided beating sent shockwaves through the junior hockey community, and the constabulary has responded. If you don’t want to fight, you don’t have to. And, if you pummel an opponent, you’re not only going to get a game misconduct; you’re going to risk getting a criminal record as well.
In international hockey, of course, fighting draws an automatic game misconduct, but limited, spontaneous fighting still occasionally happens. Nonetheless, all eyes will focus more squarely on the NHL in the coming months. Commissioner Gary Bettman has already stated there will be no ban on fighting, but perhaps the league and the club owners could try to distinguish a “good” fight from “bad” to reduce the number of fights, thereby reducing the number of injuries.
Fights in the NHL can be clearly divided into two categories. There are fights which occur as a result of an incident during the actual game action, usually as a result of a big hit or a pushing and shoving match that escalates to spontaneous punches being thrown.
And, there are the “arranged” fights between “heavyweights” which are set up just before a faceoff with the challenge, “You wanna go?” and which begin the moment the puck hits the ice.
It is this second kind of fight which is most objectionable and which can more easily be done away with. These fights are not the result of play. They are more like staged events between each team’s “tough-guy” for the express purpose of proving their worth to their team.
But if arranged fights during a faceoff are banned altogether, well over half the fights in the NHL would be eliminated. And what if these fighters were also not allowed to remove their helmets? Fewer and fewer players would be willing to risk their place in the lineup with a broken hand – and risk their million-dollar contracts – and the incidents of fighting would diminish dramatically.
It isn’t possible to compare an international tournament with an NHL season. An IIHF tournament features only the best players, and a negligible few of the top names are fighters. They play a two-week tournament that consists of about eight games, and to remain disciplined and not retaliate for such a short time is far easier than to not retaliate over a 15-year career of 82 games a season. The Stanley Cup playoffs – a short season demanding discipline – feature far fewer fights for this very reason.
The NHL can’t likely eliminate fighting altogether, but it can do its part to reduce the number of fights to ensure that another Don Sanderson tragedy doesn’t recur in our lifetime. As the players have gotten bigger and stronger, the number of incidents of one combatant hitting his head on the ice violently has risen.
It’s too soon to tell, of course, but a year from now Dave Branch might prove to be the hero hockey needs. And, since he also serves as president of the Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella body that oversees the OHL and the two other junior leagues in Quebec and the West, it is reasonable to hope that the “helmet on” rule will soon be adopted right across the junior map in Canada.
Branch’s new rules – ridiculously simple – might well save lives and will surely improve the quality of the game. That’s a pretty good way to increase fan interest.
The author’s columns featuring North American hockey appear regularly on IIHF.com.