The NHL has been in the headlines a lot this off-season, and many times, sadly, for all the wrong reasons. You’ve read about it: a player dies, a player is forced into retirement because of post-concussion symptoms, the face of the game is having setbacks, and on and on. The staggering amount of head injuries in the league has everyone talking about violence in hockey. As more and more of these cases surface, the “ hit to the head ” deniers may run out of ammunition one day soon.
Fellow writer Robyn recently wrote a piece on players who have been affected by head injuries, and its impact on their careers. It inspired me to have a little chat with my go-to guy on this issue, Adam Proteau. Columnist for The Hockey News, Adam has been pegged as a peace-keeper, a pacifist, you name it. But in reality, Adam is just spearheading a message that more of us need to get behind : Fix The Game.
I wanted to know what prompted Adam to start speaking out against fighting/violence in hockey ? Was there a particular moment or incident that influenced his view?
Here’s what he had to say :
“There was no one event or moment that made me decide to be vocal about my feelings regarding fighting and violence in hockey. As a journalist, I tried to gather as much information about the overall picture before writing any opinion-based stuff, and to be honest, it didn’t take too many years of covering the game to understand something was seriously off-kilter.
In the book I just finished, I wrote about my experiences as a young kid playing amateur hockey, being one of the bigger, more aggressive kids on my team. I was the goon back then, and I was suspended and threatened with a lifetime suspension for a stick-swinging incident on the ice. That helped shape my perspective on how the game encourages players to be aggressive, but it isn’t the only reason I feel the way I do. There are perfectly viable business, medical and moral reasons to oppose what the NHL product has become, and I’ve always wanted to focus on those, rather than my own background.”
His upcoming book, Fighting The Good Fight (scheduled to be released in December) will be a must read if this issue hits home with you as a fan of the game, or to get a better grasp on how serious this problem has become in the NHL.
“The book is something I put together in a few months this past spring, and consists of interviews with NHLers, former NHLers and management members who are all progressive minded and, to one degree or another, believe the time has come to make the game safer for all who play it.
The book doesn’t just look at fighting – it’s also about concussions, visors and NHL discipline – but fisticuffs will be the main focus. I get called a pacifist all the time, which is a way I think people like to marginalize and/or dismiss my arguments rather than address them head-on. But I’ve never said the NHL could or should totally “ban” fighting. All sports have it, but no league or sport excuses and legitimizes it the way hockey does.
That’s why I think that hockey violence is so over-the-top and unnecessary. I think it’s very similar to the massive amounts of salt that go into fast food products: you could certainly make the food without it, but those who make it obviously believe the product wouldn’t sell without it. Same goes with certain elements in hockey: people honestly believe that fans wouldn’t watch games if there were no fights. And I think that’s just about the biggest load of horseshit I’ve ever heard. If you really wouldn’t watch hockey without fights, you’re a fight fan, not a hockey fan.”
Some people, including members of NHL management and certain players, will argue that it is a physical game and players are aware of the risk of brain injuries involved in fighting/blows to the head but that these are normal, and acceptable collateral damage. Can this “culture” be changed ? And how ?
“I think the culture can be changed, but it will take a concerted effort and courageous leadership to get it done. You need people at the top of the NHL to provide the example for the rest of the sport. This idea that change can start at the grassroots and work its way up is nonsense. Kids emulate what they see in the NHL and nothing will change that.
In terms of specific change, I think it has to be a combination of things: educating players, coaches and managers as to the real long-term dangers of concussions; much harsher punishments to hyper-aggressive players; and more forgiving equipment.”
As we all know, many NHLers have been forced into early retirement because of post-concussion symptoms. Pat LaFontaine is one of them. Regarding head shots, he publicly declared : ” ..the league has made some strides, but I want to see zero tolerance on head shots.” In theory, these rules already are in the NHL rulebook, which prompts the question : why so much interpretation ? Why aren’t these rules just simply applied ?
“Glad you brought this up, because I address this in the book with former referee Kerry Fraser. He said all the rules necessary to adequately police the game have always been in the rulebook. But they aren’t applied to the fullest degree, simply because NHL owners don’t want them applied to the fullest degree. The league wants to have it both ways – to claim they’re interested in protecting players, but also to allow those players to attack each other with little in the way of repercussions. It’s a corporate decision that doesn’t affect those corporate businessmen, and it’s absolutely wrong.”
The league recently formed the Blue Ribbon Committee to study the issue as part of their ongoing program to help make the game safer, or so they say. Can anything come of this ?
“I like all the people involved with the committee, but until I see actual changes from them, I’m going to be skeptical that the creation of the committee was anything more than an exercise in public relations. It’s easy to say you’ll study something, but the truth is that concussions have been happening for more than a decade now. Study time should be over. Action time should be now.”
Seven ex-NFL players, headed by former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, are suing the league for (amongst other things) ignoring for decades the link between football and brain injuries. Can a similar action by ex-NHLers help move the process along ? Will it get to that point ?
“Yes, I think a player lawsuit would force the NHL into making serious changes. We may get that anyway with the Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore civil case, but if you look at the league’s past history, you’ll see that they often need a push from a legal source to correct things. When the NHLPA was disgraced by Alan Eagleson, only a lawsuit cleaned things up. It’ll probably be very similar in regard to this issue.”
I’m not a fan of bringing the law into the game, but if that’s what it takes to clean it up and perhaps save a life, I’m all for it. Ironically, Matt Cooke’s recent declaration offers a glimmer of hope: “It’s a mentality, it’s how I’m going to approach the game.”
The game has changed. Players have outgrown it. If other leagues can adjust to new realities, surely the NHL can too.
Be sure to leave your comments below and participate in the All Habs Poll of the Week
Which statement most closely matches your opinion of NHL hockey violence?
- A no-tolerance policy is required on head shots (46%, 169 Votes)
- Referees should fully enforce the present NHL rulebook (30%, 111 Votes)
- Fighting should be eliminated from hockey (12%, 43 Votes)
- Teams require an enforcer to protect skilled players (8%, 28 Votes)
- Injuries are part of the game -- no changes necessary (4%, 16 Votes)
Total Voters: 367