The crowd roars and immediately everyone is on their feet. Play stops and the hockey game is transformed into a prize fight. The combatants grab their opponents sweater with one hand and attempt to punch him with the other. A few turns, the odd punch and they fall to the ice. The linesmen jump in, separate the players and the referee calls five for fighting. Maybe a couple of bruises or a bloody nose but not often is anybody seriously hurt. Or are they? Is the damage cumulative, increasing in a direct relationship to the number of fights the player is involved in? Many believe it is.
During the summer of 2011 there was a rash of suicides among former NHL enforcers or so called goons. Possibly suffering from post concussion symptoms, Derek Boogaard in May, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak in August all took their own lives. These men were noted hockey pugilists and undoubtedly accumulated a lot of head blows during their careers. It is now known that violent movements of the head cause the brain to move within the cranium and can take a long time to heal from concussion symptoms. All three were fan favourites and outside of the rink were upstanding pillars of their communities.
The funny part about fighting in hockey is that although most hockey fans will tell you that they are against fighting, they all stand and cheer when the fights break out. They applaud the combatants at the end of the fights and encourage them during the fights. The players themselves are overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the fights as part of the game. The NHL brain trust would have us believe that fighting actually curtails violence. They argue that without the fights, rule infractions like boarding, head hunting and stick swinging would increase. Of course this is just hogwash.
The real truth is that the NHL believes that fighting is a major attraction for hockey fans. Unlike other professional sports, hockey players do not face automatic ejection from the game for fighting. Instead they are penalized for only five minutes. Because it takes two to fight these penalties are usually offset so the teams do not even play shorthanded. Fighting is not condoned at all levels of the game. In fact, most leagues do not allow it. Players fighting in collegiate and European leagues face ejection and possible multi game suspensions. Fighting is not a part of international competition at any level of hockey and is definitely not allowed in Olympic competition. Even in the NHL it is relatively rare to have fights during the playoffs and run to the Stanley Cup.
I used to play hockey as a young man and have been a long time hockey fan. As a player I have been involved in more than a few hockey fights and as a fan I have stood and cheered with all the others while enjoying the fisticuffs on the ice. I am not an anti- fighting zealot but with the rising evidence on the consequences of head trauma I find it increasingly difficult to intelligently support fighting in hockey. I now say ban fighting once and for all, impose stiff fines and suspensions and automatic game ejection. No more five for fighting.