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Brain damage. Drug abuse. Broken bones. Death. This, ladies and gentleman, is a story about hockey.
In just three articles, “Punched Out,” John Branch’s brutal New York Times’ piece on NHL player Derek Boogaard has ripped open a wound that the league would probably not want to talk about, especially considering that three players, including Boogaard, died this past off-season of suicide or drug related deaths.
I grew up a hockey fan, and from the time I can remember certainly the speed of the game, and of course the hits and the blocked shots and the crunching checks were a part of the draw, and they still are; no one wants to change that. And although I’ve casually said over the years, “yeah, they should ban fighting,” my reasoning was for the marketing aspect, as much as anything. As a fan of the “fourth major sport,” I wished hockey was seen by more people and had more national exposure because it is such an awesome game. What’s more, fighting is banned in the World Championships, Olympics and NCAA, and you never see fighting in the Stanley Cup playoffs. So if the gloves stay on when the games matter most, that says something.
Eliminating fighting would begin to change the perception of the sport. But after reading “Punched Out,” who cares. Banning fighting could save lives. Boogaard was a big, oversized kid who was told early and often in his teenage years that he would only make the NHL with his fists. He survived the rough and tumble world of juniors and minor league hockey by racking up thousands of miles in travel and an equal amount of penalty minutes. The parents, adults, coaches and trainers who encouraged him to drop the gloves all have a hand in this tragedy, as does the NHL, who’s old guard simply refuses to consider a league where fighting isn’t allowed. Enforcers suffer broken noses, smashed cheekbones, gnarled hands, concussion after concussion, and ultimately brain damage. They also suffer indifference from a league stuck in a provincial mindset.
On a personal note, I took my two year old to her first game at Yankee Stadium this summer, and it was a fabulous experience. Barely a day goes by that she doesn’t want to wear her Derek Jeter t-shirt, and she can point out a Yankees logos from a few hundred feet away. I was planning on taking her to her first Devils game this winter—and maybe I still will–but I never really considered this aspect of what she may see. She may see two goons drop the gloves, someone’s face may get smashed, there may be blood on the ice. The odds of this happening are long; fights don’t happen in every game and most get reduced to rugby scrums fairly quickly. But now this article is on my mind, and I have to ask: is the sport of hockey suitable for a two year old? How can a parent tell a child who sees a fight, “this is something you don’t do, but it’s okay if they do it.” So maybe I’ll wait a few years.
This is a powerful piece of journalism by the NY Times. This is a story about a brain gone bad from absorbing too many bare-knuckled punches. I’m hoping it’ll begin to change minds, but Commissioner Gary Bettman says it’s too early to draw any conclusions about a link to brain damage and fighting. That’s about the only thing in this article I wasn’t surprised to read.