Skip to content

Hockey’s summer of tragedy turns debate towards whether to keep fighting in the game

Sep 3, 2011, 9:30 AM EDT

Ben Eager, Kyle Clifford AP

After this summer’s string of NHL tragedies surrounding the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak their common role as enforcers in the league is leading to another more contentious debate. With the talk of how fighters in the NHL live a tougher life than other players thanks to their role being one that demands them to play the game more with their fists than through more conventional skills, the debate over whether fighting belongs in the NHL has rightly or wrongly been sparked.

After all, we haven’t seen guys that play a more standard version of the game run into troubles with pain killers and/or depression leading to their demise. With that common quality among the three players that have died this summer, that’s enough evidence for some to start casting blame upon that part of the game for leading to their personal downfall.

The Globe & Mail’s Eric Duhatschek shared a bit from Boston Bruins executive Harry Sinden saying that if fighting were eliminated from the game, ultimately the game would improve greatly and points to the playoffs as the reason why.

Sinden pointed out that the best moments in hockey tend to be fight-free anyway.

“We don’t have it in the Stanley Cup playoffs, which are a fantastic series of games,” he said. “Do we need it to help the regular season survive, because they’re certainly not always a series of great games? I don’t know. But I’ve watched for a number of years where there hasn’t been any fighting to speak of in the Stanley Cup playoffs and I don’t think I’ve missed it.”

It’s a smart thing to say in the face of the debate that’s picked up of late and selling the high intensity action point of the NHL makes a lot of sense. The problem is not every regular season game is played like a playoff game. With 82 games in a season, it’s a marathon and not a sprint and different issues manifest themselves during a season. Beefs are had, vengeance is sought, and the gloves get dropped. As long as fighting is legal in the game, there’s going to be a need in some teams eyes to have an enforcer or two on the roster and on the ice.

While not all teams agree with that line of thought (Detroit and Tampa Bay most notably), enforcers are viewed as a necessary thing and some former fighters are speaking up on their behalf. Georges Laraque penned a piece for the Globe & Main saying that while he hated fighting, it’s a necessary evil in the NHL.

If you think that taking fighting out of hockey is the solution, you are wrong. Eliminating an aspect of the game to solve an issue is never the right way to accomplish things.

I would not want to be the person to make that rule because there will be 75 or more players out of a job because of it, and you would see some going into depression. There are also kids just like me who are playing junior hockey with the hope fighting stays in the game so they can have a job some day. This would create a bigger issue. For me, all those former tough guy who are retired and commentating on television and on radio about taking fighting out of hockey are making me sick. They were there at the right time and now that they’ve made their money, they’re going to spit on what put bread on their table? Well, that’s not going to happen with me.

Laraque isn’t the only one saying as much as former Canadiens brawler Chris Nilan has also said as much. Laraque says that having a committee of former fighters being available on stand-by for players having trouble with dealing with the perils of fighting (low salary, constant pain, fear of losing your job to another fighter) can turn to them for help in talking those issues out. It’s a great idea that helps split the difference between taking something out of the game that some view as necessary and others see as a needless side show that appeals to the lowest common denominator.

While we’ve seen other past fighters deal with issues in their career with substance problems (most notably former Red Wings and Blackhawks fighter Bob Probert) this new wave of tortured souls is especially hard to watch because no one really knows what it was that drove them to be self destructive. Fighting may lend itself to people with personalities that deviate from normal or it might be the thing that leads to players being forced to face up to issues later on in life. Fact is, we don’t know what the link is there (if any) but the one thing that can happen if fighting isn’t taken out of the game is that everyone involved can learn to better look out for each other off the ice.

  1. 1943mrmojorisin1971 - Sep 3, 2011 at 11:28 AM

    Allow me to re-post my comment from the first Belak post, I think it adresses this topic perfectly:

    “Rypien (and Belak allegedly) was a suicide and Boogard was a result of substance abuse. Neither have been conclusively linked to their role as enforcers. The links being made between players fighting and dying are anecdotal. Gordie Howe was no enforcer but he sure was a fighter, still going strong at 83. Yes these recent deaths are all tragedies but everyone calling for fighting’s role in hockey to be reconsidered is overreacting. For every enforcer who has passed there are many more who are living perfectly normal lives. These untimely deaths are sad events but using them as a rallying cry against fighting is just plain wrong. I’m not trying to be insensitive, I’ve offered my condolences after each tragedy this summer. I just don’t like people citing inconclusive evidence such as these events as a reason to alter fighting’s role in hockey. These are unfortunate tragedies and should be treated as such, nothing more”

    To call fighting’s role into question at the point is not only wrong but illogical. All three deaths must be fully investigated and conclysively linked to fighting, something which I’m skeptical about happening, before we even get into that debate. Right now the focus needs to be on how the league and the union supports its players who are dealing with some kind of mental anguish. The fact Belak likely suffered from depression even though he appearef happy than any of us leads me to believe there are more players (not just fighters) suffering in silence. We should be discussing how best to help them, not whether or not they should be fighting.

    Using these tragic events as a rallying cry against fighting at this point, without substantial evidence to support your claims, is disrespectful to the deceased and their greiving loved ones. I know it’s going to happen but I still wish it wouldn’t happen

    • snotienose - Sep 3, 2011 at 5:34 PM

      “To call fighting’s role into question at the point is not only wrong but illogical”.

      Maybe someone should hit you in the head a few hundred times and see if you suffer from depression. Oh, you have a hard head.

    • pjmarn6 - Sep 3, 2011 at 5:46 PM

      They want to fight, put on the gloves and step into the ring. I am sure they can make a living there. Hockey is a sport. Baseball is a sport, Basketball is a sport and Football is a sport. In Baseball, Basketball and Football, you fight you are out of the game.
      I find allowing fighting in hockey utterly ridiculous. Put in the bans on fighting, play the game, win or lose and get the game back to it being a game and not a boxing match.

      • 1943mrmojorisin1971 - Sep 3, 2011 at 6:11 PM

        snotienose: there’s no need for that remark. If you know so much about depression in pro athletes and how it is linked to fighting perhaps you should be working on Dr. Cantu’s team instead of trolling this site insulting people. I do not suffer from depression but have been in my fair share of hockey fights and know others that can say the same. Can you? If not, please share your uninformed opinion somewhere else

        pjmarn6: fighting does and will continue to have its place in hockey. You cite sportsmanship in baseball, but is throwing a 100 mph fastball at an opponent’s head really better than punching them in the face? I say no, but I understand each sport’s athletes have a way of policing themselves whether we agree with them or not. Hockey is no different. What needs to be eliminated is headhunting cheap-shots and goons who only play 1 shift a game in order to fight (removing the instigator rule would help deal with both). Those have absolutely no place in hockey but fighting does

      • stakex - Sep 3, 2011 at 10:40 PM

        Fighting has been a large part of hockey since before you were born. Its part of the sport, and there is no reason it shouldn’t be. Don’t like it? Find a different sport.

      • schnaidt20 - Sep 7, 2011 at 11:58 AM

        hockey is a much different game than baseball and football and any other sport. fighting has been around in the league and if it leaves i will never watch it again. Just becuase three people sadly took their own lives does not mean it has to do with fighting… its just a freak summer. Stupid players like matt cooke have no place in the game. Its the fastest game on earth and you have little time to think. Emotions run very high and sometimes to get the frustration out two players will throw down. If any of you people have ever played the damn game you would know that… To say it is utterly ridiculous is incredibly stupid. People are getting hurt from illegal hits to the head and hits from behind. Very rarely is someone beat up so bad they have to miss a few games or are out for the season. If anything happens they break a wrist. Some of the best players to play the game were dirty… Gordie HOWE is called mr. elbows for a reason!

  2. 1943mrmojorisin1971 - Sep 3, 2011 at 11:37 AM

    conclusively, appeared happier (obviously. edit button?)

  3. icelovinbrotha215 - Sep 3, 2011 at 11:53 AM

    I don’t think fighting needs to be abolished from the game. But maybe the enforcer role does? Something to consider because we’d be dumb to sit here and think that all the intentional blows (hundreds maybe thousands) these guys take to the head has nothing to do with motives outside the rink.

    • 1943mrmojorisin1971 - Sep 3, 2011 at 12:49 PM

      Agreed. Teams should not employ players that get 1 minute of ice time a game with the purpose of breaking an opponents face. You can still have enforcers, but they need to be guys who can play regular shifts on the third or fourth line, not “mad dogs” (as Don Cherry calls them) sitting at the end of the bench and being sent out just to fight

    • pjmarn6 - Sep 4, 2011 at 3:44 PM

      1943mrmojorisin1971 If you throw at a baseball player you are expelled from the game and you get a suspension and loss of pay. If you deliberately hurt a player, that suspension can be a serious suspension and a substantial loss of pay. The people who pay to see a baseball game do not come to see a baseball thrown at a player. Fighting in hockey is juvenile and ridiculous. And anyone who supports that is more juvenile and ridiculous than the players who are allowed to fight and that includes you and your ridiculous arguments.
      It sure does teach the youth sportsmanship and the finer points of the game! YEA bring your son to the next game and teach him how to rip his gloves off and tear the hair off his opponent and slam his head into the ice or the wall. See that is how the game is supposed to be played! THAT IS CALLED GOOD SPORTSMANSHIP! ITS NOT HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME, ITS HOW BAD YOU CAN HURT THE OPPONENT! NEXT TIME A COP STOPS YOU, PUNCH HIM IN THE FACE AND SEE HOW LONG YOU SIT IN A TIME OUT BOX.

      • pjmarn6 - Sep 4, 2011 at 4:01 PM

        And yea anyone who fights in hockey deserves what he gets, a fractured skull, stitches in the face, broken ribs, broken ankle, concussion and a shortened life span and a poorer quality of life. They choose this life so go and get it. OH BY THE WAY, FORGER ABOUT MOHAMMED ALI AND HIS PARKINSON’S DISEASE BROUGHT ON BY GETTING HIT TOO MANY TIMES IN THE HEAD AND THE AVERAGE 15-20 YEARS LESS THAT A BOXER LIVES.
        1943MRMORJOISIN, I find your comments offensive in relationship to the quality of the game and in general you are a moron to condone fighting on the ice. In soccer, any sort of deliberate contact gets you carded and finally expelled. People go to watch the game not players getting beat up. But it appears you go to see the fights. When I was a kid, there used to be Saturday night fights. Maybe you can find some on the internet, guzzle a few beers and pizzas and really enjoy yourself.

      • 1943mrmojorisin1971 - Sep 6, 2011 at 9:33 PM

        I enjoy a good debate and even the odd heated exchange, but unless you’re 12 years old you should be ashamed of posting this incoherent crap on a public forum

      • schnaidt20 - Sep 7, 2011 at 12:03 PM

        yea becuase punching a cop in the face is a game… you must be a girl becuase your ranting emotionally and not making sense! no offense to woman. Please stop watching hockey. you do not understand the game.

  4. phillynac - Sep 3, 2011 at 12:11 PM

    It seems like backward thinking to say that taking fighting out of the game would cost people jobs. Fighters are costing actual hockey players jobs right now. I am not sure if I want to eliminate fighting but the more players on the ice with actual skill, the more fun for the fans.

    • moosewing - Sep 4, 2011 at 3:44 PM

      There is a set number of players on a roster. If you eliminate a goon, somebody else would take that spot. There quite possibly would be more players who can actually play (skate, shoot, pass, etc.) that would continue if the fighting was not there.

  5. muttbolts - Sep 3, 2011 at 12:23 PM

    Well said mr mojo.about fighting in playoffs,does anyone remember the fight with vinny and inginla in finals that fight changed the whole series

  6. 1943mrmojorisin1971 - Sep 3, 2011 at 12:56 PM

    This is a very interesting and informative article. It discusses the kind of conclusive evidence I was referring to. If it turns out these 3 players had CTE and that it contributed to their demise we can start asking questions about fighting, but doing so while the jury is still out is pointless

  7. jpelle82 - Sep 3, 2011 at 1:03 PM

    you have a choice to fight. you know the risks. just like on the street, there’s consequences. you cant ban fighting, i mean guys fight in basketball, baseball, football when they’re not supposed to. if its gonna happen then its gonna happen.

    • moosewing - Sep 4, 2011 at 3:47 PM

      In basketball, football or baseball, if you fight, you are fined and likely suspended. How about this – fight and get a 10 game suspension and a $25,000 fine. Fight a second time and it’s a 40 game suspension and a $100,000 fine. Fight a third time, and you are banned for an entire season with a $1,000,000 fine. Think fighting would still just happen?

      • 1943mrmojorisin1971 - Sep 6, 2011 at 9:35 PM

        And let’s make tripping a 5 minute major while we’re at it…..

  8. phillynac - Sep 3, 2011 at 1:25 PM

    Does there really have to be a study conducted to say that getting punched in the face repeatedly is not good for you?

    • 1943mrmojorisin1971 - Sep 3, 2011 at 1:33 PM

      The study is so we can fully understand the physical and mental toll fighting takes on a player and whether or not it is contributing to certain players’ mental illnesses

      May I suggest you keep ignorant comments like this and the one in which you questioned the legitimacy of another person’s livelihood to yourself

  9. phillynac - Sep 3, 2011 at 1:39 PM

    What does that mean? The legitimacy of another persons livelihood? Fighters who don’t play hockey don’t belong in the league. I also think many studies have been done and multiple blows to the head cause brain problems. You are not breaking any news here. Keep your ignorant comments to yourself. You need all of the readers you can get.

    • 1943mrmojorisin1971 - Sep 3, 2011 at 2:29 PM

      You seem to understand exactly what I meant. There are many players (Mike Brown, Marty McSorley, etc.) that make their living fighting but have more to contribute than that. You’re trying to say goons have no place in the league, something I agree with.

      I would really be interested to see some of the numerous studies ypu speak of that link fighting to depression, addiction, suicide, and other forms of mental anguish. So far I’ve only seen the one above which is still a work in progress. That indicates further study is needed. This issue is not as cut-and-dry as “getting punched in the face is bad for you” and to suggest it is really is short-sighted

  10. balewsquare - Sep 3, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    I second 1943mrmojo’s comments in that these deaths are coincidences, albeit tragic coincidences.

    To get rid of fighting in a hope to solve this situation is a knee-jerk reaction. It’s like the NFL having less kickoffs to solve kickoff injuries. These things just don’t happen with fights.

    As stated in the “Belak’s mom says he had depression” article, you never really know when depression will strike. Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. It runs in families. To think that not one non-fighter in the league suffers from depression is ignorant.

  11. nofunleague - Sep 3, 2011 at 3:28 PM

    Did I miss somehing in the article that would lead the writer to believe that through the years the majority of fighters, “goons” have died early? As for fighting I just see it as a waste of time. They wear themselves out before any harm is done and it takes away from the game. I am not Canadian so what do I know. It turns out looking like Dancing with the Stars. Three punches thrown, fall to the ice, refs pile on, 5 minute rest. Yawn.

  12. krakondack - Sep 3, 2011 at 4:26 PM

    It’s true that the regular season has things spill over and there may arguably be a role for fighting in settling scores. But things are not what they once were. Bobby Orr dropped his own gloves and duked it out when he felt he needed to. What’s the chance he would do that today? If it was Jean Ratelle who made him mad, then today you’d have Boston’s goon beat up the Rangers’ goon. Is that what you call settling things? Neither star player would be involved today. Instead we have a WWF-style appointment-fight between two guys who had nothing to do with the original problem. It’s staged, feels artificial, and has no real connection to the game.

    Then the next point that is patently absurd is that eliminating fighting would make 75 players lose their jobs. Well, they would but they’d be replaced by skill players, so the number of jobs would be a wash. It is completely self-serving to gripe about it costing jobs.

  13. ksctychiefs - Sep 3, 2011 at 4:31 PM

    i love hockey ,guys come off the ice sweating hard,dont see any fat players like football,takes alot of skill………but, i used to watch alot,use to have center ice,cancelled my subscription…..why? … too much fighting,too many cheap shots…refs stand back and let so much ‘fight time’ proceed which is only what the league wants to promote….. the bottom line for me is that the cheap blind shots are deplorable,and some day some one is going to die,and actually be dead,from a broken neck,between the time of a really high cheap shot and his body hitting the ice……there will be some fighting as it is a hard hitting emotional sport much like football,but the cheap shots need to be punished severely ,and taken out of the game to prevent an on ice tragic fatality….

    • wrister1 - Sep 3, 2011 at 8:06 PM

      Really? Fighting in hockey has been on the decline. Like there are no blatant fouls in basketball, late hits in football, beaming in baseball, all of which can lead to serious injury. Fighting in hockey is one of the most controlled aspects of the game- by the fighters themselves. Singling out hockey for cheap shots is an incredibly ignorant argument. The only reason there are cheap shots is because of the instigator rule. The losers are allowed to pull cheap plays and can just skate away. If they are grabbed, they turtle, don’t stand up for actions and may get their team a power play. This is what needs to be removed from the game. There already has been a death in hockey a long time ago but there are many more players who have had their careers ended early cause of these clowns are not held accountable. Fighting makes the game safer. The instigator rule makes hockey more dangerous. You claim to be a fan but use problems many games have as an excuse to jump on some bandwagon some opportunists created by exploiting the terrible, unnecessary deaths of three young men. Hockey fan….right.

  14. snotienose - Sep 3, 2011 at 5:27 PM

    Hockey is the most disgusting example of sportsmanship I’ve ever seen. Fighting should be banned and anyone fighting should be prosecuted for assault. Like I said, hockey is a sick disgusting sport for stupid rednecks with their teeth missing and scars on their heads.

    • 1943mrmojorisin1971 - Sep 3, 2011 at 6:13 PM

      What about the pitchers who throw fastballs at opponents heads? Those guys are class acts, right?

    • 1943mrmojorisin1971 - Sep 3, 2011 at 6:16 PM

      Oh I just noticed you’re the same guy that posted that garbage under my first comment. Seems to me you’re no better than those “stupid rednecks”, if you’te not a hockey fan get off this board and spew your nonsense somewhere logical people won’t have to listen to it

      • pjmarn6 - Sep 4, 2011 at 4:15 PM

        Fighting is only condoned and allowed in hockey and it is sickening. As sickening as your twisted thinking. Baseball umpires have the authority to immediately remove a pitcher who throws at a batter and immediately warns the other team about retaliation. The few fights are followed by suspensions and hefty fines. The same goes for basketball and foot ball and in rare cases soccer as there is less fighting.
        Playing hockey is a skill game. Boxing is a physical game where you beat up your opponent, trying to deliberately hurt him to the point that he is knocked out or can’t answer the bell. Hell you want to fight or see fights go downtown on a Saturday night to most major cities and you will see lots of fights. Deadly ones too. That is what you want to watch.

  15. tommytd - Sep 3, 2011 at 5:35 PM

    The fighting is B.S. and they would be well served to tone it down. What other pro sport condones that level of violence? How about zero tolerance for headshots? My god, DO SOMETHING.

  16. 1943mrmojorisin1971 - Sep 3, 2011 at 6:19 PM

    The NFL, Aussie rules football, rugby, the UFC, and there’s probably a few more I can’t think of right now. They should get rid of the “hired goons” in hockey, the sport was never having these problems before those players became an unfortunate part of hockey

  17. stakex - Sep 3, 2011 at 10:54 PM

    Fighting has always been part of hockey. Since before any of us were born, guys were fighting in hockey. Just becasue three guys that happened to be enforcers died within a year of eachother, does not mean it has anythingt at all to do with fighting in the game. Perhaps it was a coincidence? Maybe it has to do with the medication these guys might have been takeing? Perhaps in the most recent case it was simply a failure to adjust to life away from the game. None of that has anything at all to do with the fighting in hockey…. and there has never been a problem with enforcers dieing in droves before.

    Id also like to point out that anyone who is currently a fan of hockey, became so while fighting was a big part of the game. You knew damn well how the sport was when you started watching. There is no reason for the game to change becasue your offended by the fighting for some odd reason. If you don’t like it, go watch a less violent (and much more boring sport) like baseball or something, because hockey is a violent sport… and clearly thats not for you.

    If the NHL should do anything, its work on how it punishes cheap shots and head shots. I can’t recall too many, if any, fights that have seriously hurt a player. I can however, think of a ton of cheap shots that have damaged/ended players careers. If the NHL really cares about protecting its players, thats where it should start. Then it should take a good hard look at how it handles players mental states…. which seem to be more responsable for the deaths this year then any other factor. Fighting on the other hand? Why remove a popular part of the game thats not hurting anyone… especially when there is absolutely no desire for the players to see it removed? It makes very little sense.

    • moosewing - Sep 4, 2011 at 3:53 PM

      They should eliminate both fighting and the cheap shots. Simple fix. Suspend and fine the players. Ban them from the sport. Prosecute them for assault.

      Watching the Olympic hockey is awesome. Watching the average NHL game is ridiculous.

Top 10 NHL Player Searches
  1. P. Kane (1435)
  2. P. Kessel (1392)
  3. M. Boedker (1222)
  4. S. Matthias (1150)
  5. M. Zuccarello (1136)
  1. R. McDonagh (1135)
  2. D. Carcillo (1108)
  3. A. Ovechkin (1103)
  4. A. Ladd (1017)
  5. C. Ehrhoff (978)