THUNDER BAY – Analysis – It was a little over 10 years ago that the Vancouver Canucks power forward Todd Bertuzzi sucker-punched Colorado Avalanche rookie, Steve Moore. Bloodied and unconscious from the fall and a Canucks dogpile, Moore came off the rink with a concussion, three fractured vertebrae in his neck, and an abruptly terminated hockey career. Bertuzzi was charged with a heavy fine and a 17-month suspension by the NHL. He also pled guilty to formal charges of assault causing bodily harm; he was issued 80 hours of community service and a year probation, but no jail time or criminal record. Now, ten years later, Moore is suing Bertuzzi for $38 million. The case will go to trial in September.
Despite the physical, emotional, and financial damages for players and teams involved, the list of criminal hockey fights goes on and on. Last March, Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward, Frazer McLaren, hurled a knock-out punch at Ottawa Senators rookie Dave Dziurzynski. The 23-year-old suffered a concussion from the blow that was described by former Ontario attorney-general, Roy McMurtry, as “just plain thuggery.” The first round of the 2012’s Stanley Cup playoffs involved a headcheck by Phoenix Coyotes’ Raffi Torres toward Chicago Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa. It was a violent hit that sent Hossa to the hospital and Torres off the ice for a 25-game suspension.
It’s just not just individuals being accused of excessive violence. Currently, the National Hockey League faces a class-action lawsuit, involving 13 ex-players who seek damages for negligence and fraud. The suit alleges that the NHL perpetuates the game’s violence by encouraging athletes to play through injuries, and by refusing to ban fighting or violent body-checking.
“The time has come for the NHL to elevate long-term player safety over profit and tradition,” the statement said.
The injuries that result from these violent acts on the ice can be severe enough to raise alarm and serious repercussions in any other sport.
“If a rookie started punching Kobe Bryant in the head, repeatedly and after the whistle—again and again, over and over—he wouldn’t get a foul, which is what a two-minute penalty is. He’d be suspended for the season, and quite possibly for life,” said Canadian sportswriter and hockey historian Bruce Dowbiggin. “Only in hockey is this tolerated.”
Off the ice, these acts of violence could qualify as criminal charges. What Canadian law characterizes as a summary conviction offence vs. indictable offence equates to the U.S. distinction of misdemeanor vs. felony. An aggressive attack that’s commonplace in hockey, like a sucker-punch or knee to the face would classify as a misdemeanor. Depending on the severity of the resulting injury, it could even be called a felony – a charge in the U.S. that could lead to jail time.
So what’s to be done about the deep-rooted culture of aggression in Canada’s favorite sport? A public opinion survey says that about 78 percent of Canadians want to ban fighting from junior-level hockey; two-thirds of fans in the general public want fighting out of the big leagues.
“Parents are not going to encourage their kids to participate in sports that are organized around the expression of brutality,” said Sociologist Jay Coakley, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, and author of Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies.
If national statistics are any indicator, Coakley is right. According to Statistics Canada, age-15-and-up hockey participation peaked at 1.4 million in 1998 but had fallen to 1.2 million by 2010. While rising costs of participation are part of the reason for the decline, a huge factor is the risk of injury.
“Opponents claim that violent behaviour diminishes the sport of hockey and sets a bad example for lower levels and encourages young players to mimic these violent practices—to the detriment of skills—in hopes of one day being capable of playing at the highest level,” stated a 2010 report by the Department of Canadian Heritage.
That violent behavior in youth games has played out for the last 20 years, said Grant Heather, director of officials for Hockey Manitoba, an amateur hockey association. Just last month, a 12-year-old player suffered a broken wrist after a referee allegedly knocked the boy down while trying to break up a fight. The boy and his mother want to press criminal charges. At least 15 incidents involving violence have been reported to Hockey Manitoba, said Heather.
But for tough guys like the Calgary Flames enforcer, Kevin Westgarth, fights are just an inherent part of the game.
“We’re completely aware what can happen and what, at some point or another, will happen,” he said, in response to his knockout by Edmonton Oilers winger Luke Gazdic. “Whether that’s fighting or taking a hit or anything, it’s part of why people pay to watch hockey. It’s part of why people love hockey. It’s tough to separate the violence from a lot of our favourite sports.”
According to a new major new study in the U.S. by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, sports-related brain injuries are a “significant public health concern.” Up to 3.8 million children and young people suffer from sports-related brain injuries each year. Minor league hockey accounts for over 44 percent of all Canadian team-sports related brain injuries—almost a third more than soccer and football combined. Considering so many sports-related brain injuries go undiagnosed and unreported, this is probably a conservative figure.
The paradox of these findings is that rule changes geared toward reducing the number and severity of concussions are ineffective. According to a joint study conducted by the Ontario Hockey League and the NHL, stricter rules related to headshots in professional hockey did not reduce the number of concussions suffered by players.
The conclusion here is that rules are too weak and not very strictly enforced. Proponents of decreased violence in the game are calling for an overhaul on concussion management and asking Hockey Canada to impose stricter penalties and heavier enforcement of what’s already sanctioned in the rule books.
“You can no more ban fighting in hockey than in any other sport,” said Adam Proteau, writer for The Hockey New. “But you can punish it more appropriately, starting with a game misconduct and ejection for any fight, and a sliding scale of fines/suspensions for repeat offenders.”
So whether you’re following the Kings or Rangers, let’s hope for the sake of professional hockey that excessive violence is kept in check for this year’s finals.
Heidi K. Redlitz