Kukla's Korner Hockey

Kukla's Korner Hockey

The Denver Post offers a SI-similar--and very different--take on the necessity of fighting

12/02/2013 at 3:53am EST

George here on the late shift. These stories hit the wires yesterday, or so their time-stamps state, but they weren't posted here...And if they aren't posted here, I tend to assume that the Nick Lidstrom of blogging has seen 'em and chosen to let them pass as they've hit a particularly repetitive tone.

The Denver Post does indeed tread upon some familiar ground in echoing Sports Illustrated's "50 Landmark Hockey Fights" with a series of articles about fighting, and it includes a similar Stu Grimson-penned endorsement of fighting to the one Grimson penned for SI, but it goes along the same path on a slightly different tack. I think they're worth reading.

Adrian Dater and Mike Chambers list their own "landmark fights," offer a "history of fighting in hockey," and they note the trio of enforcers who've passed away recently in Mark Rypien, Derek Boogard and Wade Belak, and yes, again, Grimson makes his mark with a new endorsement of hockey's version of self-policing, but all of the articles speak from a post-NHL alumni concussion lawsuit-filing perspective--including a Sunday notebook's version of Dater suggesting that the lawsuit is unlikely to reach its aim--but Dater and Chambers offer what I can only describe is a startling split in perspectives given that they speak to Avs enforcers Patrick Bordeleau and Cody McLeod about keeping their opponents honest...

The 6-foot-6, 230-pound Bordeleau will fight anyone the Avs ask him to in order to protect less physical teammates. The 6-2, 210-pound McLeod will square off with anyone too afraid to trade blows with Bordeleau.

"You have to be able to play the game and not just fight," McLeod said. "(Fighting) is a little bit in the back of your mind, but compared to like 10 years ago, you're not thinking three nights before who you're playing and who you're going to fight."

They risk a physical beating, such as being punched in the face, and they can't afford to nurse injuries by not finishing body checks. But, as long as they play their role, they'll have a job, which is why they regard fighting as being integral to hockey, despite the physical punishment.

"You have to keep the guys honest. That's why fighting is there, and I don't think you can take that out of the game," Bordeleau said. "It's like how Bobby Orr said, 'If there wasn't fighting back in the day, the game would be disgusting.' If there is no fighting, what are you going to do, crosscheck a guy in the face instead? That's why I think it will never disappear."

And that story continues, but is contrasted significantly with none less than Scotty Bowman addressing the issue in an interview with both Chambers and Dater--among others, including former Colorado Avalanche enforcer Scott Parker, NBCSN analyst Brian Englbom, attorney Joe Cammarata and a physician in James Kelly...

"You worry about these rats that might go around chopping everybody's ankles and thinking they could get away with it," Bowman said. "Most of my teams were really good and had trouble having just a pure enforcer make the roster. But we still had some. You have to be able to respond. If a team feels like it can intimidate you in any way, they have an advantage and they'll use it."

No rule prevented the opening-night fight in October between the Montreal Canadiens' George Parros and Colton Orr of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The heavyweight enforcers fought until Parros lost his footing, hit his head on the ice and suffered a concussion. Parros' helmet was ripped off his head by Orr, now a common move to get around the new helmet rule. (Players unbuckle their chin straps and allow the opponent to slide the helmet off their head.)

For all the talk of phasing out fighting, the NHL isn't about to turn its back on its fans or its players. Overwhelmingly, hockey fans love fighting, and players believe it's necessary.

In a survey on Twitter last week, the first 50 respondents who were asked if fighting should be banned answered no.

NHL players have much the same view. In a 2011 NHL Players' Association/CBC poll, 98 percent of players were against abolishing fighting.

"We're the only sport where fighting is allowed and you feel like it's part of the game," Chicago forward Bryan Bickell said. "The people running the teams want it, players want it, the fans want it, and the bottom line is it prevents players from running around looking to hurt guys and holds them accountable for their actions. There are going to be times where people are going to be hurt. But it's the nature of the game."

After the other luminaries weigh in, Chambers, who covers college hockey beat as well as the Avs' beat, rather passionately makes the case for not going the NCAA route in banning fighting at the Major Junior or developmental hockey levels, lest the NHL invite less-disciplined players into its ranks on a blanket basis...

When playing against a young NHL player, Avalanche center John Mitchell can usually tell whether he was groomed in the Canadian Hockey League's major junior system or on NCAA ice.

If that player came from the NCAA ranks, he's more likely to be a loose cannon, because college hockey has such stiff penalties for fighting, which draws a game misconduct and ensuing one-game suspension. The NCAA also mandates full facial protection with a mask. While that might seemingly make the NCAA game safer, Mitchell said what it does is encourage more cheap shots, because players don't fear retaliation.

"If you take fighting out of the game, you're going to have guys taking liberties on your top players, and trust me, that thought is in the back of their minds: 'Hey, if I'm going to go out there and do something stupid, I might have to answer the bell. Someone is going to be come looking for me,' " Mitchell said. "So if (fighting is) out of the game, they have no worries."

The semi-pro Canadian Hockey League (major junior) mimics the NHL regarding its rules, including fighting, and offers a choice of cages or visors. NCAA hockey is often dubbed "gladiators on ice," with players less fearful of opponents because of the severe fighting penalties and added facial protection. Cross checks to the face mask are delivered instead of punches to the face.

Since fighting is not part of the college game, the majority of concussions hockey players suffer are a result of contact to the head from a shoulder or elbow or having a head smashed against the boards or glass. Moreover, NCAA players often get away with landing glove punches, but just because it's not a bare fist connecting with a open face doesn't mean it isn't damaging to the head.

Dater describes Scott Parker's post-hockey life and does so in a manner that is less than a ringing endorsement of the life of the enforcer. Quite the opposite, though Parker insists that he holds no bitterness toward what fighting on skates for a living may or may not have dealt him in terms of life-long after-effects:

Scott Parker lies in bed, dreading what might come next. Soon after awakening, his ears ring so loud they seem like the equivalent of a hundred fire alarms. Waves of nausea wash over him until he vomits. His eyes glaze over.

One of the toughest men to ever play in the NHL is knocked out, not from an opponent's punch, but from simply getting out of bed.

Nearly six years since he retired from the NHL as one of its toughest enforcers, Parker is finding everyday life a more fearsome opponent than any he dropped the gloves against. Some days he feels fine. Many days he finds himself paying the price of years of blows to his head. The 6-foot-6, 245-pound Parker — nicknamed "The Sheriff" as a player — frequently is debilitated by seizures. He has to wear sunglasses most of the time because too much light can bring on headaches that leave him incapacitated. When Parker looks down, he cannot "track" objects. Otherwise, he gets dizzy and nauseous.

He is only 35, but Parker's short-term memory resembles someone much older. He is so forgetful that he has to write down routine things such as needing to make a trip to the grocery store. He often takes pictures and videos with his phone to remember how to do things such as use tools in his woodworking and metal shop.

"I can see right away when he's having a bad day," said Francesca, his wife of 15 years. "When he wakes up, he's in a fog. I can talk to him and I can see it's just going right through him. And then he's forgetful. He has words in his head, but what comes out of his mouth is totally different than what he's thinking."

This story continues at length, and it's arguably more fascinating and gripping than reading what Bowman, Engblom, Cammarata or Kelly, the doctor who convinced Parker to retire, issue in the "main thrust" article, it makes you wonder whether Grimson's Denver Post-submitted endorsement of dropping the gloves has met its living, breathing matches in people like Parker, Darren McCarty and Grimson himself:

[T]he presence of an enforcer keeps the other team honest. The opposition is far less likely to take liberties with your team when you have an enforcer. And think of it this way: If the ultimate goal is to reduce trauma to the head, the threat of a fight is one tool in a small basket of tools the NHL has at its disposal to curb that sort of behavior. The enforcer, just like a ref on the ice, acts as a deterrent. If a player knows he has to answer to George Parros when he acts up, he's far more likely to keep his elbows tucked in.

Having said that, I am the first to admit that the justification for fighting is less compelling today than it was when I played. The game has evolved; I don't recall the last time I saw one team come out on top simply because it brutalized its opponent. There was a day when the tougher team was most often the team that prevailed. Today, that seems to be the exception, not the rule.

If you want to ban fighting, do it for that reason. Ban fighting because the game has outgrown it. But I'm not convinced it has.

Do we really have a choice any more? I've had all of two concussions in my lifetime, both due to slipping and falling on my own butt, but the second was accompanied by incredibly bad post-concussion symptoms, and the acute sensitivity to light that gave me lingering headaches and a, "I'm looking at a bleached-out image burned into an old CRT monitor" after-image seemingly burned into my retinas has never really gone away.

The more we learn about how very fragile and fickle the jiggled, jostled and bruised brain can be (as a Wings fan, witnessing Pavel Datsyuk miss a week due to an "inadvertent" elbow from Jared Cowen has the whole fan base worried, and we have no clue what the Penguins fans of the world have to think every time Sidney Crosby gets targeted), the more I wonder whether we can justify allowing the players who play the game we love to watch--and pay money to follow--to keep ramming their fists into each other's skulls, even if only infrequently.

What do you think?

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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

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