As NHL commissioner Gary Bettman spoke about the future of fighting in hockey at an NHL Board of Governors meeting this week, that question kept nagging at me. As in, what if there is in fact a link between hockey fighting and some of the tragedies that have befallen the NHL recently? Even if a link hasn’t been conclusively proven, shouldn’t the strong possibility that fighting is leading to some players’ long-term brain damage be enough to eliminate the practice altogether from the game?
An exhaustive, three-part New York Times series chronicling the life and death of former New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, who died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and a painkiller in May, has intensified the debate about fighting on the ice. Boogaard got into nearly 200 scuffles in his pro career and incurred multiple concussions; for the last few years of his life, he battled substance abuse. In a postmortem analysis of his brain, a Boston University lab diagnosed Boogaard with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease found only in people who have suffered repeated head trauma. Symptoms of CTE include depression, memory loss and problems with impulse control.
Hockey fighting is a long-standing ritual in which players drop their gloves and are allowed to engage in a bare-knuckled boxing match in the middle of the rink for a minute or two before referees break it up. In baseball, football, basketball and soccer, the officials don’t step back and let players brawl during play. International hockey disallows fighting; so does the American collegiate game.
The Boogaard tragedy raises a fundamental question that the sport can’t easily ignore. If fighting were phased out of the NHL, could similar future tragedies be avoided? If the NHL truly cares about player safety — and its heavier fines and suspensions for blatant head hits while the puck is in play suggest as much — why not remove a practice that involves, you know, dozens of blatant head hits? Isn’t permitting hockey fighting the height of hypocrisy?
Bettman would surely take issue with that charge, but you have to give him some credit for honesty: he essentially admitted this week that economics keeps brawls in the game. “Our fans tell us that they like the level of physicality in our game, and for some people it’s an issue, but it’s not as big an issue in terms of fans and the people in the game to the extent that other people suggest it is,” Bettman said at the meeting, in regards to fighting. “I think people need to take a deep breath and not overreact.”
Eliminating hockey fighting, however, seems far from an overreaction. No, we don’t know for sure if Derek Boogaard’s fighting caused his death or even his addictions. But here’s what we do know: CTE has been diagnosed only in victims who suffered blows to the head. (It was originally diagnosed in boxers and was called dementia pugilistica, or punch-drunk syndrome.) Some CTE victims were not addicts; Boogaard, and others, were. Boogaard’s drug use could have heightened the depression and memory lapses he suffered near the end of his life. But his CTE certainly could have caused his depression and cognitive issues and the lack of impulse control that led to his addiction. So it’s entirely possible that if Derek Boogaard hadn’t fought, he’d be alive.
Furthermore, Boogaard’s is not an isolated case. Two other late hockey enforcers have been diagnosed with CTE: Bob Probert, one of the most prolific fighters in the game, who died of heart failure at age 45 in 2010, and Reggie Fleming, a bruising player from hockey’s prehelmet era who died in 2009 at 73. Fleming had suffered from dementia and other CTE symptoms for the last 30 years of his life. Two other enforcers died this summer: Rick Rypien, who committed suicide after battling depression for 10 years, and Wade Belak, who died of a hanging (which Belak’s family has said was accidental). Their brains have not been examined; CTE can be diagnosed only postmortem.
“Policy and rule changes should not be made prematurely from knee-jerk reactions,” says Robert Stern, co-director of the Boston University Center for the Study of CTE. “However, we must take logical steps and measured steps to reduce exposure to brain trauma.” Harsher penalties and suspensions for fighting — currently, the combatants go to the penalty box for a mere 5 min. — and a directive to refs to play immediate peacemaker are perfectly logical and measured.
Another question popped into my head when I read some of Bettman’s comments. Didn’t he see what happened in the NFL? When CTE was first starting to be diagnosed in pro football players five or so years ago, the league tried to downplay the effects of concussions. Eventually, the NFL changed its tune. The league has funded research at the Boston University CTE lab, enforced stricter return-to-play guidelines for players who have suffered concussions, handed down stiffer penalties for players who take intentional head shots and even cut down the number of practices, all to reduce the overall incidents of head collisions.
In response to these new tragedies in the NHL, Bettman has downplayed the link between concussions and CTE. “With respect to what Boston University might find on CTE, they’re still looking at a very limited database,” he said. “There’s no control element, because you have to look at everything that went on in the person’s life before you can make a judgment as to what a brain can show when you open it up … I think it’s unfortunate if people use tragedies to jump to conclusions that probably at this stage aren’t supported.”
No one is jumping to conclusions. Every CTE victim has been hit in the head. “I disagree with statements that call into question the link between repetitive brain trauma and CTE,” says Stern. “CTE has been described in studies since the 1920s. To date there has not been a pathologically confirmed case of CTE who has not had a history of repetitive brain trauma.” Stern’s database is far from limited.
“There are no easy answers,” Bettman said. There’s one. Break up the fights.