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Would we miss hockey fights?

By in Sports & Health

The Ubyssey (University of British Columbia)

VANCOUVER (CUP) — “I almost died from depression, suicide, drugs and alcohol from the depression of violence. I’m living proof that living a violent lifestyle can kill you.”

When asked about the effects that fighting has in hockey, that is what former NHL enforcer Jim Thomson said. You might remember Thomson as the recent subject of the boisterous Don Cherry, who on Hockey Night in Canada called Thomson a “puke” and “ingrate” for advocating his desire to ban fighting from hockey.

So far this year Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien — three former NHL players known for their penchant for dropping the gloves — died from suicide or substance abuse. It is believed all three suffered from depression.

While the last 12 months have provided more than enough tragedy, the narrative on fighting in professional hockey is still ongoing, with no foreseeable end in sight. Yet one place where the narrative has found a conclusion is at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport level. To the chagrin of purists, but to the delight of advocates such as Thomson, fighting is not permitted in CIS hockey.

The question is, should it be? As a fundamental component of both the junior and professional ranks, should players who have created a niche for themselves protecting their teammates, and one could argue, symbolically protecting the game, be allowed to bring their skill set to the university ranks? Are the rules in the CIS helping or hindering these players from joining the CIS, let alone allowing to them to excel in the CIS game?

Discrepancies in league regulations

If ethics and morality are cast aside, the appeal of seeing a hockey fight is understandable. On its own, a fight may not be for everyone to watch. In a fast-paced game like hockey, there is already plenty of excitement to see with highly conditioned athletes competing in non-stop action.

Derek Boogaard of the New York Rangers drops the gloves versus Steve MacIntyre of the Edmonton Oilers.
However, there is something to be said about seeing two men put aside the game and the rules, squaring up and locking eyes, succumbing to the suppressed violence and chaos innate in human nature, and while the moment may be fleeting and ephemeral, the audience becomes viscerally enthralled, captivated by the image of competition at a primal level.

Irrespective of entertainment or excitement, there is a purpose to having enforcers in hockey. This mainly involves keeping the opposition from making dirty plays and retaliation. In CIS hockey, the current regulations on fighting prevents enforcers from doing what they do best.

Every year, there are only a few fights that break out in the CIS. Participants get an automatic game suspension. The player who instigated the fight gets suspended for two games. This eliminates retaliation for dirty hits and leaves the punishment up to the game officials.

Michel Belanger, the CIS media and communications manager, explained that the reasons for the regulations are simple.

“To us, it’s pretty obvious — I mean, it is a university sport, it is a student sport. We think it’s a good rule because you just don’t want fighting in university hockey,” he said. “I don’t think it would go really well with our institutions and the kind of message that you’re trying to send.”

Although Belanger was not quite clear on exactly what message university athletics want to send, he explained it was not simply a matter of sportsmanship. “It’s all about the value that you want to give and you want to represent when you have a student sport and university sport,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s about better sportsmanship — it’s more about the overall values of institutions like a university.”

These values are clearly not part of junior league hockey where teenagers as young as 16 are free to engage in fights. Some Western Hockey League players build up their reputations as enforcers at an early age. These players are put in an awkward position if they want to make a successful transition to university-level hockey. Although they can still be physical, they are stripped of one of their most distinguishing tools.

“I think it’s kind of sad when you see [fighting] with junior players at 16, 17 or 18 years old. They know that there are scouts in the stands and that people are watching and they want a little extra edge that will put them ahead of another player,” said Belanger.

UBC hockey player Matt Wray is an example of a junior league enforcer who had to make the transition to CIS hockey. As an Alberta Junior Hockey League player for Camrose, Wray racked up over 250 penalty minutes. “Early on in my career, I wasn’t expected [to fight] as much,” he said. “Because I didn’t have an objection to [fighting], I started doing it more and more. When I was in Kamloops, I think I got into 21 fights in 40 games.”

Wray’s easygoing and jovial nature might be surprising for those who have seen his physical style of hockey, but there is no mistaking his belief that there is a place for fighting and enforcement in hockey.

“It eliminates a lot of stuff. There are instances where, on the ice, guys are being cheap or they injure a player or something, and there’s no real means to get back at them other than making them pay on the scoreboard,” he said.

Other than strictly enforcing good behaviour on the ice, Wray also noted a motivational factor that a violent scrap can bring. “A lot of the times in the juniors or pros, fighting is a good way to get the guys fired up. A lot of players respond really well to seeing a guy go out there and put it on the line for their team.”

Wray’s transition to CIS hockey was not without its difficulties. He explained there is a need to “pull back the reigns” and hold back from retaliating. As a winger, Wray has more than just his physicality to rely on, which is also an important factor in the transition. Before establishing himself as a fighter, he was a high-energy player, able to put points on the scoreboard.

The challenges of being an enforcer

Jim Thomson believes CIS hockey is ahead of the NHL and junior level hockey when it comes to game regulations.

Thomson’s passion for getting rid of violence in hockey comes from a lifetime of negative experience as an enforcer for many teams including the L.A. Kings and Ottawa Senators. During the 1986-87 season, playing for the American Hockey League (AHL)’s Binghamton Whalers, Thomas racked up an astounding 360 penalty minutes in 57 games.

At first it may seem odd that a former enforcer would be calling out against the very aspects of the game that got him recognized, but it’s clear that the lifestyle took away more than it gave to him.

“Let’s face it: the night before a game, I would do drugs and drink just to kill the anxiety and the fear — so I became a drug addict and an alcoholic in a major way, dealing with the depression and the fear of fighting,” he said.

Thomson has a unique perspective about the life of an enforcer. He recognizes that there are people in the sport who depend on their fighting abilities to make a living, but he also sees a necessity for that role to be removed in order for the sport to grow.

“I don’t want anybody to lose their job… but if you take the enforcer out of the NHL you remove 30 jobs. You’re going to replace it with better skill, which is a better product for the consumer,” said Thomson.

As for the enforcer’s role of keeping opposing players and dirty plays in check, Thomson believes that unnecessary. “There’s no easy way of saying it, but let the league be the sheriff, not guys’ fists.”

Skill vs. brawn

Many pro hockey players face problems with addiction and depression.
According to UBC’s head hockey coach Milan Dragicevic, there is a growing trend in CIS hockey that shows a decreasing need for enforcers in a league without fighting. “The hits from behind are down and the stick penalties are down and that’s a credit to all the players who are coming up focusing more so on just playing hockey instead of stuff after hits or dirty hits.”

The reason behind the decreased penalties is hard to pinpoint. Though the absence of fighting may create a sense of self-policing amongst players, Wray believes it has more to do with the university culture manifesting itself into the game. “I think in the CIS there’s more respect between players,” he said.

“They respect [each other] — not only as hockey players, but what they’re aiming to do in their careers. If they don’t go into hockey, then they’re pursuing education, so a guy isn’t going to go and run a player from behind as much.”

There’s no doubt that fighting can be a nerve-wracking situation. Thomson’s struggles with anxiety and depression as an enforcer are well-documented. This type of pressure on a student athlete could only seem unreasonable. However, there are those who are psychologically undamaged by such physical confrontation.

Wray disagrees that anxiety and depression affect all enforcers. By his own experience, he doesn’t feel that he was forced into a fighting role and said he rarely experienced anxiety before games. “You hear about certain instances in [substance abuse], but they’re not really playing up the guys that didn’t do that,” said Wray. “There are a lot of guys who feel pressure to score goals and they’re not resorting to drugs and I think it’s kind of a scapegoat.”

While upfront about his own feelings on the matter, Wray acknowledged that in university there would be players who would not want to risk blows to the head. He also agreed that unhealthy stress levels are a reality in the sport. However, the correlation between these factors and drug use is not concrete.

The substance abuse struggles of NHL enforcers have been a highlight in sports news recently, but these cases have been few and there are many enforcers who do not suffer from these problems. Yes there have been incidents, and Thomson’s experiences are eye-opening, but they do not establish a rule to the matter of substance abuse.

Still, in a university setting where alcohol and drugs can easily be found, why even risk adding the pressure of fighting to student hockey players?

One reason could be for fan attendance. This factor could be the biggest reason why fighting in the NHL and junior hockey will not be banned any time soon. There is undoubtedly a fear of losing viewers if fighting gets cut from the game.

On its own, hockey is a beautiful game to watch. Fans are thrilled by the fast-paced action, exciting hits and highlight-reel goals. Many supporters of fighting in hockey have expressed that hockey viewers will drop with the absence of brawls. According to Thomson, the real outcome could be drastically different.

As a coach, Thomson has seen many parents shy away from allowing their kids to play hockey due to the violence involved. “Hockey in the [United States] is out-viewed by darts, dog shows, bowling, poker, and the list goes on and on,” he said. “How do we know that the game won’t grow if we take the violence out? You’ve got the biggest market in the States and it can’t get any momentum, and I say you take the damn violence out and you might get a whole bunch of new kids registering.”

If Thomson is looking for a place to test his theory, CIS hockey isn’t the best choice. Holding back from fights was not the only change that Wray had to get used to when he started playing hockey at UBC.

“In the WHL, most places you go you get fans coming. In the CIS, it’s quite a drop off from what you’re used to in the juniors. Look at the stands and the majority of seats are empty. It’s a different experience,” he said.

However, Wray doesn’t attribute this drop in attendance to fighting. Correlation does not equal causation. There are plenty of reasons other than the absence of fighting for why the attendance rates at university games are low. University students are busy and a quick look at attendance for other sporting events around campus will reflect a general lack of interest as well. University teams don’t receive as much hype and marketing as junior hockey teams do in their respective cities.

If Olympic hockey games are any indication, the sport can survive just fine without fighting.
Whether or not enforcers can survive is another story.

Fighting is still present in the junior and professional ranks, but it is increasingly becoming less of a priority to have a player excel at this skill. Like Thomson said, skill makes a better product. CIS hockey needs players with more skill than brawn. There’s no doubt that it’s still a physical game, but a player’s fighting abilities are not appreciated.

If a university athlete is aspiring to reach the pro ranks, he will not be able to make it with the power of his fists. He cannot showcase this ability. Good skills have to come first if an NHL career is going to be reached through CIS hockey. As it stands, the regulations in CIS hockey work fine. The game is still exciting to watch and there isn’t any feeling that something is missing.

Fighters may have to change their game for university, but considering that one dimensional fighters are less of a commodity in professional hockey, this change should benefit them. It forces them to practice their hockey skills more than their pugilistic abilities, which will perhaps give them a longer a career in the sport, and more importantly, a longer life to remember that career.

Photos: rgmcfadden/flickr

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