Never-ending story may end?

Nordic debate on fighting naive in light of medical findings on C.T.E.

07.12.2011
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Petri Matikainen’s teams, both in Espoo and Helsinki, have been involved in several fights that caused aftermaths in Finland. Photo: Jani Rajamäki / Europhoto

STOCKHOLM – Hockey fights are a highly polarizing topic, it seems that you can only be dead against them, or just as strongly support them. Last week, the polarization reached a whole new dimension with the debate hitting opposite shores of the Baltic Sea.

The debates in Finland and Sweden would have maybe taken different directions, had the people who engaged in them been able to read the shocking New York Times revelations about former NHL player Derek Boogaard, who died on May 13 this year at the age of 28. But the story was only published last Monday, several days after things quieted down in the Nordics.

The New York Times wrote that Boogaard, who over six seasons accrued three goals and 589 penalty minutes – most of them for fighting – had a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma when he died in May, according to researchers at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

The disease, widely known as C.T.E., is a close relative of Alzheimer’s disease and has also been diagnosed in brains of two other former hockey players who frequently engaged in fighting, Bob Probert and Reggie Fleming. Probert died at the age of 45, while Fleming passed away at 73.

Although the researchers at the Boston University already before Boogaard’s indicated a link between frequent fighting, repeated head trauma and brain disease, it has apparently fallen on deaf ears in Finland and Sweden, were some proponents try to sell the idea of fighting partially as entertainment and partially as a means of administering justice.

First, in Finland, the final minutes of a game between HIFK Helsinki and the Lahti Pelicans were filled with fights. All in all, there were three separate incidents, including 14 players.

The one that set things in motion had two pairings, but the fight that caught everybody’s attention included eight players, four on each side, and it got started right after the next faceoff, just three seconds after the first one. The third fight took place after the next faceoff.

When it was all over, the two teams collected 465 penalty minutes, most in Finnish hockey history.

SM-liiga sent out a press release the day after, in which CEO Jukka-Pekka Vuorinen voiced his concern about the fighting "which causes hockey and the SM-liiga unnecessary badwill."

The league disciplinary committee handed out suspensions to nine players, suspended the coaches for two games, and gave the clubs €10,000 fines. While it’s always difficult to prove that the coaches had sent the players out to fight, the league disciplinarians stated that "the coaches should have made sure, after the first fight, and especially after the referee’s warning, that their players wouldn’t engage in fighting."

While neither the Pelicans nor HIFK players or coaches would comment on the incident, the event once again created a media storm about fighting in hockey. The pro-fighting side was quick on its attack this time, calling it all a part of the game, and telling those who didn’t think so simply to stay quiet. Such as Finland’s President Tarja Halonen, who was asked about it.

"That’s not a part of the game at all," said Kalervo Kummola, IIHF Vice-President and President of the Finnish Ice Hockey Association.

"It looked like something that the coaches had told the players to do, and that has to be nipped in the bud," he said.

Finland’s national team coach Jukka Jalonen said staged fights should be banned.

"But sometimes emotions run high, and you have to defend your honor, or your teammate, and those fights should be allowed," he added.

Finland’s SM-liiga has been fairly pro-fighting for a long time, and fisticuffs haven’t often led to long suspensions. In 2008-09, after a couple of years of fights that had been set up in advance, the league board gave the disciplinarians a mandate to give tougher suspensions for "non-spontaneous fights".

Since then, eight players have been suspended. One from Ilves Tampere, three from the Espoo Blues, and four from HIFK Helsinki. HIFK’s current coach, Petri Matikainen, was Espoo’s coach 2008-2011. Meanwhile in Sweden, while the Finns were expecting to hear from the league disciplinary committee, some GMs are trying to get the league to drop the automatic match penalty for fighting, according to a newspaper report.

"Hits to the head are our main focus but another item that’s been on the agenda is fighting, and the penalties for fights," said Mikael Ahlström, Elitserien’s Director of Officiating.

The suggestion that has been on the agenda is giving the fighters a five-minute major, like in the NHL, instead of a match penalty.

"I’d rather see two guys throw their gloves and face each other in an honest fight than have players deliver hits from behind," said Färjestad’s GM Thomas Rundqvist.

"A two-game suspension for a fight seems way out of proportion. We can’t have players get a two-game suspension and a $2,500 fine for a fight," he said.

The suggestion must be getting traction if MODO GM Markus Näslund is behind it. And he is.

"Our Ole-Kristian Tollefsen got a match penalty for defending himself, and he got punched once or twice," Näslund said.

"Of course we don’t want promote fighting but after my years in North America, I know that the game stays cleaner if you have to stand up for your actions on the ice," he said.

According to Aftonbladet, the number of fights in the Elitserien has been going down in the last few years. In 2006-07, there were 23 fights, in 2007-08 36 fights, 2008-09 36 fights, 2009-10 28 fights, and last season 25 fights. This season, there have been a half a dozen fights.

Apparently, that’s not enough for some people.

Notebook:
  • Kiekko-Laser Oulu in Mestis, Finland’s Division I, has filed for bankruptcy. The club told its players and management that the team cannot finish the season.
  • Raimo Helminen, the coach of the Finnish U20 national team, announced his roster for the training camp on Monday. Besides the Granlund brothers Mikael and Markus, for example, Sami Vatanen, Teemu Pulkkinen, Alexander Ruuttu, Joel Armia, Aleksander Barkov, and Joonas Donskoi were named on the camp roster.
    "There can’t be any other goal than to win all the games," said Helminen.
  • Ässät Pori’s Tomas Zaborsky is head and shoulders above the rest of the league in goal scoring. The Slovak forward has 23 goals in 29 games. Mikael Granlund leads the scoring race with 36 points. Zaborsky has 33 points.
RISTO PAKARINEN

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