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Photo Credit: © Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

That’s Entertainment

I still enjoy watching a good hockey fight. Despite having all kinds of reasons, most by way of first-hand experience, to know bare-knuckle brawling isn’t great for the brain or the long-term health of the person that brain belongs to, I’ve never once turned away when the leather hits the ice and punches start to fly. Quite the opposite. There, I said it.

Frank Seravalli of TSN tweeted out much the same sentiment last week after a scrap between Marcus Foligno of the Minnesota Wild and John Hayden of the Chicago Blackhawks. It was the last bit of those 140 characters – after Hayden landed a big punch that rocked Foligno — that grabbed the attention of many, including me. There was, to my way of thinking, a common contradiction in Seravalli’s words.

To which I (and a lot of other people) responded.

The catch is, if you are a fan of fighting on the ice and believe it has a place in the game, then “it” – including the possibility one or both of the combatants might land a punch that injures somebody, possibly long-term – is hockey, or at least an aspect of it you are willing to accept. This is not to show up Seravalli. His immediate reaction to Hayden’s big bomb in slow-mo isn’t uncommon. It is, more than anything, an uncomfortable juxtaposition of values. It’s one I struggle with. “I like to see a good scrap, I just don’t want anybody to get hurt.”

THE RISKS

Feb 11, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) and Chicago Blackhawks forward Vinnie Hinostroza (48) fight during the third period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

We know more now than we ever have about the potential long-term effects of blows to the brain and multiple concussions. We have enough information to know what repeated blows to the brain can do. The vast majority of those damaging blows, in hockey and in other sports, most notably football, don’t come from fighting. And, in the vast majority of hockey fights, blows like the one Hayden landed are rare.

Those flat-out opposed to fighting on the ice often exaggerate the risks. They can point to a handful of examples where careers essentially ended in a fight to make their case. I’m not going to play that card because I’m not setting out to preach. That doesn’t make it less true that we have seen – even leaving out the unquestionable cumulative effect of punches taken over a career – cases where damage is done.

The night of Seravalli’s tweet, I cited a fight between Steve MacIntyre of the Edmonton Oilers and Raitis Ivanans of the Calgary Flames. It’s here. Ivanans was never the same. He was done as an NHL tough guy. Then, there’s the ugly sight of Nick Kypreos being left face down on the ice leaking blood in a pre-season fight with Ryan Vandenbussche. It’s here.  Kypreos suffered serious post-concussion issues and retired. There’s also the fight between Ed Jovanovski and Adam Deadmarsh. The concussion Deadmarsh suffered didn’t end his career but it certainly contributed to a concussion that did – when he was accidentally hit by the knee of a teammate.

There are other examples of players who have been concussed or significantly damaged in fights, but those numbers pale compared to blows that come in other aspects of the game – the many high-speed collisions, being pitched into the boards and the glass, being popped on the chin by somebody’s shoulder cap. Taking a knee, like Deadmarsh did. Taking a hit like Leon Draisaitl did the other night. Fighting isn’t the only risk. Far from it.

FROM WHERE I SIT

Oct 12, 2016; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Milan Lucic (27) and Calgary Flames defensemen Deryk Engelland (29) fight during the first period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Like I said, I’m not going to preach. At the same time, and for the sake of context, my point of view on fighting has evolved over the years as somebody living with the effects of multiple concussions. Between those diagnosed and my best guess, I’m into double-digits. A handful came from sports – most of them in fights while playing lacrosse or sparring to sharpen my fighting skills – others from a motorcycle accident when I was 20 and in a car wreck 10 years ago. The last one came in a charity ball hockey game, of all things a few years ago. The damage is real.

There are days when I can’t remember my mother’s name. That’s frightening. Events I remember one day, I don’t recall the next.  That’s frustrating. More than once during the many years I spent co-hosting the Jason Gregor Show, I couldn’t recall anything about events I’d covered and written about. Jason would ask me about something – often an event we’d discussed on air before – and I’d have to wave him off because, on that day, I drew a blank. People have said, “You should write a book” about this or that. I’m flattered, but in many cases, if I didn’t write it down, I don’t remember it. Or, I remember it one day, but not the next.

I can remember hockey statistics or song titles or you-name-it from 20 or 30 years ago but there are days when I have to think long and hard just to be able to tell you what I had for lunch. My son, Sam, is just 11 years old. I don’t want to forget even a single moment of what’s happened and the joy he was brought me since he came into the world or what is still to come. I fear I will. I’m a more prolific note-taker now than when I was a sportswriter. I have to be.

So, that’s where I’m coming from. All that said, and even knowing what I know about damage to the brain and how it has impacted and impaired my life, when the action out on the ice heats up and the gloves come off, I lean in instead of turning away. I know the price too many of these young men will pay at some point for entertaining us in this way. Fighting in hockey is a bad idea. This we know. Yet, like many of you, I watch. That’s tough to reconcile.

RECENTLY BY ROBIN BROWNLEE  

  • Rebuild3.0

    i agree robin. i always love a good tilt but it has to be in the moment and not something set off the draw. besides ever been in the building when a great fight happens??? fans love it

  • Colin M

    Robin, thanks for sharing your personal insight. It adds a real perspective that most of us will probably never experience living through. Also kudos to appreciating the value of the bond you and Sam have and soaking every single moment you have with him in. You are and have always been an ultimate journalist, and will continue to be throughout this journey through life.

  • hagar

    Is it societies responsibility to tell people that they shouldn’t do something they want to do if it’s bad for their health? Everyone that smokes knows the risk they are taking, yet they choose to do it anyways.
    Ask an nhl tough guy making a million dollars plus a year if he would rather live as long as possible with a clean head and work at Boston pizza, or make millions of dollars and play a sport they love for years, and risk future problems, I bet the consensus would be clear.
    It’s easy to say when your old and on the verge of dementia you wish you would have done something different, but that goes for lots of stuff in life. The fact is your life was carved from what you did in the past, being a boxer slamming chick’s left and right in your lambos and Bentlys most likely wasn’t possible without going the rout that ruined your brain. Gotta pay to play.

  • fasteddy

    I struggle with this dilemma too RB…..on one hand remembering the rodeos of yesteryear that had rinks everywhere bursting at the seams given the crazy brawls and fights vs the impact / potential impact on the participants. The junior rinks would be full today if they still played that way, but that ship has sailed.

  • McPucker

    I don’t think they should take fighting out. I do think they should increase the penalties assessed. Maybe give suspensions as the players get more majors. Something to deter the goon but not remove it.

    I do believe that if fighting goes, stickwork will increase. I also believe sometimes a guy deserves a good butt kicking.

  • Danoilerfanincalgary

    So when there is a fight both combatants should get the boot and if past the half way mark of the game, the next game too. Make the fight worth something and that will rid the game of frivilous fights and fighters. Any lost wages should be donated to head injury research.

  • BlueHairedApe

    In the days of the gladiator their only other choice was to be a slave and so they chose to be gladiators. Only the most skilled survived. Today is not much different. Let them make their own choices.

  • The concussion/CTE element will be very topical in the coming days with Dryden’s new book on Montador coming out.
    Having recently read “Truth doesn’t have a Side” by Bennet Omalu the risks are obvious and arguably non defensible but the combatants now take to the task with considerable CTE knowledge as a backdrop. Given that, if they are willing combatants, who am I to judge.
    Cheap shots to the head are not hockey either but I don’t see Frank calling anyone out on that oddly accepted part of the game. Perhaps someone should enlighten him that those hits contribute more to CTE occurrence than guys squaring off for what amounts to a few glancing blows with the odd “ended him” as happened with Ivanans.
    The game is slowly crawling out of the neanderthal era and has a long ways to go with its propensity for nepotism but it will get there, maybe with continued pressure from guys like Frank and Bobby Mac. but most likely in court.
    The game is incentive based, when the incentives (cash) are in jeopardy, then change will come, to quote Spec.
    twas always thus.

  • All Ice

    Good on em! Sometimes guys just want to swing! If both guys see it coming, let em swing! Again, sometimes it’s not about money, players just need to have at it