Twilight of the goons? Head injuries and the elimination of fights in hockey

Concerns over head injuries may gradually eliminate fighting from hockey. (photo courtesy SlidingSideways/Flickr CC)

Head injuries and hockey have a long, storied history together, much like peanut butter and jam. However, over the past few years there has been a growing concern over the long-term ramifications of head injuries and, consequently, concern over head injuries in the game.

One of the leading voices in the discussion of head injuries in sport is Dr. Robert Cantu, M.D., co-founder of the Sports Legacy Institute and co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. While the past few years have seen the deaths of prominent NHL pugilists Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien, they have also seen the National Hockey League create specific rules looking at eliminating hits targeting the head, blindside hits and fights in the last few minutes of games.

Cantu notes that these new rules represent a significant move forward by the hockey community in regards to eliminating head injuries from the game.

“I think a lot of progress has been made and I commend organizations from Hockey Canada to the National Hockey League for making that progress,” said Cantu. “Obviously it’s still a work in progress and there are significant additions that can be made, especially in the area of fighting, but I think you’re seeing checks to the head being made illegal and purposefully targeting the head is even illegal at the National Hockey League level. I think that’s a huge change from just a few years ago. I think unfortunately it took injuries to Marc Savard and arguably [Sidney] Crosby and others to bring about that change, but the important thing is that it’s happened.”

While the NHL has imposed restrictions on hits to the head, developmental leagues ranging from major-junior to college have passed similar rules. In addition, this season saw the Western Hockey League ban “staged fights” off of face-offs and the Ontario Hockey League create a limit of 10 fights per player per season, with stiff penalties for exceeding that limit. Cantu believes that these restrictions on fighting at the junior level will gradually begin to be seen at the NHL level.

“I do think that banning fighting is what people, the great majority, want to see happen,” explained Cantu. “And I think that there are feelings that it’s too drastic a move for many to accept, so that we’ll do it with baby steps. You know, a walk before you run type of thing. But I think this is clear movement in a direction as you get youngsters growing up being more cognizant of not fighting or penalties for fighting, et cetera, there will be less of it. And it’ll be easier to tighten up the bans going forward once these initial ones have been experienced for a year or two. So yes, I view all of this as a path to ban fighting in hockey.”

If much of the hesitance to remove fighting from hockey seems familiar, that’s because this isn’t the first time safety concerns have been hindered by arguments that hockey, as a sport, shouldn’t be fundamentally changed. Similar arguments were made when goalie masks were introduced and became mandatory in the 1960s and 1970s, and when helmets were made mandatory for skaters in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Craig MacTavish, seen here as coach of the Edmonton Oilers, was the last active NHLer to play without a helmet. (Icon SMI)

“I think it’s insane to think of a hockey goalie not wearing head-gear just because thirty years ago people were getting skull fractures from pucks,” noted Cantu. “That’s no reason to get them today. I don’t want to disrespect anybody that views themselves as a hockey purist, but I do believe that protective equipment is very necessary.”

To illustrate how the phasing out of fighting could go at the NHL level, Cantu pointed to the introduction of hockey helmets. For players that entered the NHL before a certain date, they could choose whether or not to wear protective head-gear. Newer players had no choice, and gradually helmets became cemented as part of hockey culture.

“When those helmets came in, they were not mandated for people that were already in the league without them,” explained Cantu. “You didn’t have to wear them. And you had for a few years, some individuals who played at the National Hockey League level without a helmet. And then, as they retired, and younger people came in that only knew wearing helmets, it was never even a consideration – if you know what I’m trying to say. I think that’s what we’re going to find happen [with] fighting.”

While the deaths of Rypien, Boogaard and Belak over the summer of 2011 were extremely tragic, what made them tragic – their avoidable contributing circumstances – may ultimately bring about some positive outcomes for the NHL and the game of hockey. While much of the discussions about head injuries and concussions to that point had centered around hits to the head (particularly due to the injury to Sidney Crosby), the deaths of three prominent fighters has widened the discussion.

“The league cannot be serious when it says it wants to make the sport significantly safer for its participants – visa vie the rules that you cannot purposefully target the head, for which [NHL vice-president of player safety Brendan] Shanahan can fine you if you do it and suspend you if it’s flagrant enough – you can’t really have that rhetoric and let people bare-knuckle each other to the head,” said Cantu. “So right now it’s a bit hypocritical. The fighting is being put in a separate category and the people that do it are almost thought of as primarily a separate kind of hockey player. And I think these restrictions at the junior level are going to find their way up to the National Hockey League level, and I think the restrictions that are there now will get more severe as time goes forward and eventually you’ll just see it banned. It will be a step-wise process.”

NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard passed away in the summer of 2011. (Timothy T. Ludwig-US PRESSWIRE)

For some fans, discussion of eliminating fights from hockey breeds fears that all physicality may soon be drummed out of the sport. Cantu has done his best to alleviate those fears, noting that the main mechanism of eliminating head injuries in the sport has centered around eliminating blows to the head.

“I don’t think anybody or at least I don’t think there’s any strong cry to take the hitting out of hockey,” said Cantu. “What I want to see come out of it is purposefully targeting the head, and it pretty much has. And if you’re going to take that out, which the National Hockey League has, you also have to include purposefully targeting the head with your bare knuckles.”

While the elimination of fisticuffs from the National Hockey League may be coming in the future, the hope is that the restrictions already imposed on fighting at the junior level and on hits to the head at all levels of hockey will drastically reduce concussions and lengthen careers. For now, though, it’s a waiting game, as most of the rules are too new to really know their impact on the game or on the health of its players.

Ryan Pike
A native of the Stampede City, Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and as Managing Editor of FlamesNation.ca.
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