Grange: It’s time to ban fighting in the NHL

The absurdist debate about the future of fighting in the NHL may have sunk to rock bottom Tuesday night, the opening day of the NHL season—hockey Christmas, in other words.

Leafs vs. Habs? The torch ceremony? Phil Kessel getting a $64-million birthday present? It all had the air of a celebration, but ended with the uneasy feeling that one day we’ll be attending a memorial service, wondering what could have been done to prevent the guy being buried in the first place.

As a national television audience doubtless in the millions gathered around one of our last communal hearths, George Parros of the Montreal Canadiens, a respected economist with a degree from Princeton University, was lying on the ice, unconscious with a hint of his own blood seeping from his face.

As he lay still and before he was taken from the Bell Centre ice and to hospital on a stretcher, Glenn Healy and Craig Simpson—former Stanley Cup champions turned-first-rate hockey broadcasters—had the following exchange on the CBC.

In discussing why the NHL had introduced a rule this season requiring players to keep their helmets on during fights, Healy explained the roots of the rule change trace back to the 2009 death of Don Sanderson, who suffered a head injury in a fight in senior hockey and never recovered.

Healy: “Don Sanderson… hit his head on the ice, no helmet and he died. And if that happens in this game, the National Hockey League, fighting will be gone from the game.”

Simpson: “I guess you ask, Glenn, why does that (the death of a player) need to happen for that (the elimination of fighting) to happen?”

It’s a great question. Whatever your position on fighting, it’s safe to assume that we can all agree that fighting to the death—even an accidental death—is an undesirable outcome.

Right? We’re good with that? Death in hockey is bad.

There is probably no single rule change that can guarantee that won’t happen. But if someone dies in a fight—even accidentally as a result of a fight—then those who advocate for the place of fighting in the game will have a more difficult time explaining how fighting makes the game safer.

Now, let’s get the nit-picking out of the way:

No, Parros was not injured as a result of an actual punch thrown in a fight, but rather because he lost his balance while wrestling with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Colton Orr and pitched forward, landing with full force on his face.

And yes, he was wearing a helmet the whole time.

But then again, the only reason his face hit the ice at high speed was because he was in a fight. This stuff happens fairly often.

Nearly three years ago it was Orr falling to the ice in a fight against Parros and suffering a concussion that nearly ended his career. It took him two seasons to return to the NHL full-time.

In addition to the traditional fighting injuries—broken faces, hands, noses and eye sockets—there are torn shoulder and knee ligaments, and high ankle sprains from all the awkward falls.

The NHL knows that fighting is risky, and is constantly walking that line between what they perceive as the point of differentiation they get by being the only major-league sport in which fighting is more or less tolerated and the possibility that something really bad can happen.

It’s why this season they implemented the rule requiring combatants to keep their helmets on. Taking them off during a fight is a two-minute minor for unsportsmanlike conduct—not making that up.

The logic boggles. Fighters are required to keep their helmets on in case they hit their heads after the fight. But the fight itself—in which the whole goal is to hit the other guy in the head as often as possible, perhaps even to the point where he falls down and hits his helmeted head on the ice? Hey, go for it. Serve your five minutes like a man.

Of course those who actually have to do the fighting have done their own grim math and realized that if they do break a hand punching a helmet, they can’t play. And the lives of fighters being as precarious as they often are, a long-term injury could even affect their career prospects.

It makes perfect sense then that fighters are now removing helmets by mutual agreement before the bout begins, like some kind of medieval ritual, played out to perfection by Leafs defenceman Mark Fraser and Canadiens winger Travis Moen in another one of the five fights that peppered the season opener between the old NHL rivals.

Fighters can do the math as well as anyone.

Parros graduated from Princeton in 2002–03 after four years of Ivy League hockey with a degree in economics and quite likely a working understanding of the law of unintended consequences.

With modest skills, he was smart enough to recognize that at six-foot-five and 230 lb. his best chance to make it to the NHL was as a fighter. He took boxing lessons (fighting is not allowed in college hockey) and fought every chance he could in the American Hockey League. He made his NHL debut in 2005–06 and has been in the league ever since, amassing 141 fighting majors and earning about $4 million.

This season he’s part of an arms race of sorts that threatens to make play in the Atlantic Division something like a UFC card on ice.

Parros’s name was added to the Canadiens’ lineup in part in response to the presence of rugged types like Orr in the Leafs’ lineup. The Leafs added fighters under head coach Randy Carlyle because he thought the club he inherited from Ron Wilson was too easily intimidated by the likes of the Boston Bruins, who won the 2011 Stanley Cup and were the toughest in the league.

The Leafs led the NHL in fighting majors last season and made the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. It’s impossible to tell if the two events are related, but the Leafs believe they are so the rest of their division is now beefing up in response.

Hockey has come miles and miles since its blood-stained recent past. Part of the reason fighting is such a hot-button issue is because it’s relatively rare compared to where the game used to be.

The Leafs accumulated 44 fighting majors last year, or just less than one a game in the 48-game schedule. In 1985–86 the Detroit Red Wings racked up 154 fights and the NHL had 12 teams with 80 or more.

But less fights is still too many. The discussion on head injuries across sports should make banning the one element of hockey where the goal is to hit people in the head a relatively easy sell. As it is, fighting has increasingly been pushed to the margins for years, even though NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (not to mention the NHLPA) has never given a hint of being interested in leading the charge.

But now it needs to go not only because of what happens when big men punch each other in the face, but also what can happen entirely by accident.

Common sense will prevail and one day fighting will be gone, the question is: Will we be celebrating, or will we be mourning the last casualty before the ceasefire?

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