Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The NHL's Combative Conundrum

For those who haven't heard, Winnipeg Jets center Rick Rypien was found dead Monday in Alberta.

While no one has said anything specific about the cause of death, we know it apparently isn't suspicious, and it was described in one report -- since edited -- as a suicide.

This isn't going to be a rant about the end of fighting in hockey. It's also not an indictment of the sport. Every sport has people who have struggled with addictions or other problems. For Rypien, depression was the real-life fight. For Derek Boogaard, it was addiction. That they died at a young age does not make hockey bad. It does not make hockey a sport that kills young people.

It makes hockey players human beings who are sometimes vulnerable to human tragedies.

However, there is a very real problem facing the NHL and the sport in general. It's a problem that I'm quite uncomfortable bringing up, when Rypien died just a day ago. It's a problem, however, that needs to be addressed soon, before it spirals out of control.

See, Boogaard and Rypien shared a common thread. They may have never fought one another, but they did take part in plenty of fights in pro hockey.

And it's that facet of the sport that is now under the greatest scrutiny.

It sounds crass to use the deaths of Rypien or Boogaard -- men whose families are grieving over their deaths -- as some sort of example as to why the NHL needs to ban fighting, however we have to talk about this, before someone on the outside makes us.

Peter Raaymakers of Silver Sevens -- a Senators blog on SB Nation -- wrote an incredibly compelling piece on fighting Monday, obviously unaware that another NHL enforcer-type player would end up dead later in the day.

Probert suffered a fatal heart attack at the young age of 45 after collapsing onboard a boat on Lake St. Clair. His brain was donated to science, and researchers at Boston University found that he suffered from a degenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE isn't like, say, heart disease of cancer; it doesn't kill people directly. It's a bit more like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease), in that it's a degenerative disease that is believed by most (not all, I should note) to slowly take its toll on those affected by leading to depression, memory loss, and symptoms of dementia.

Probert's widow Dani doesn't think fighting is what cause Probert's CTE, but instead has suggested it's the many bodychecks that hockey players take during a career. It is true that there isn't a definitive causal link between fighting and CTE, but fighting definitely increases your chance of sustaining head injury, and the more head injuries you suffer, the more at risk you are for CTE.

There's a lot of good info in there about the toll that this job -- enforcer -- takes on the bodies of those who participate.

As Greg Wyshynski notes ...

If the NHL banned fighting tomorrow, would another player ever take a painkiller? Or a sleeping pill? Or both? Would another NHL player drink a bit much to calm his nerves while popping a pill? Would another NHLer succumb to depression given the agony and ecstasy of his profession and the excruciating time away from family that comes with the gig?

The bottom line? The NHL could ban fighting, and this could still happen. We could still be looking at guys under 30 meeting an all-too-premature demise, and we'd still be sitting here wringing our hands, trying to figure out how to keep it from happening again.

It's just that we wouldn't have the ready-made fighting connection. We'd have to ban something else, like half-shields or whatever.

What would happen if the NHL banned fighting? Would people stop going to the games? Unlikely.

The end of the Minnesota Wild's sellout streak may have come in their first year post-Boogaard, but the two items are incredibly unrelated. The Wild's sellout streak ended because the economy tanked and the team sucked. If both of those things hadn't happened -- say, had the team been good or the economy stayed healthy -- the streak would probably still be alive. But people had to make tough decisions with their extra money, and "pay $75 a game to watch a bad team" wasn't too appealing to them. That's understandable.

Do you think the Florida Panthers struggle to sell tickets because their players don't get in enough fights? Or is it because the team hasn't made the playoffs in what feels like 100 years, and they don't have any real stars they can market?

However, what is the price the NHL pays by banning fighting?

Yeah, a guy like Boogaard -- whose only job was to protect his team's skill players with the occasional fight -- might not be able to find work, but someone will have to draw an NHL salary to replace that spot in the lineup. So that's not much different.

I don't care what team it is. Ticket sales will not noticeably suffer. Yeah, fans stand when the fight starts. I get that. But they aren't going to stop attending games because there isn't a fight to cheer for anymore. If that was the case, we wouldn't sell out as many playoff games as we do.

However, what is the on-ice effect? I mean, Matt Cooke is bad enough when he knows he might have to fight a tough guy to answer for the cheap shot he threw a month prior. Now, you're telling me that the NHL will be solely responsible for policing the sport. I know that Brendan Shanahan hasn't had a chance yet to show he can do the job better than Colin Campbell (well, let's set the bar higher than "does the job better than Colin Campbell"), but I'm not of the mind to automatically trust the NHL's discipline system because Campbell is no longer running it.

Cooke isn't going to just stop playing, so either the sport has to police itself in some way, or the league has to do a (much, much) better job of policing behavior like that which Matt Cooke is sometimes guilty of. It's that simple.

I hear the frustration over fighting, and the potential problems it can cause for its participants. But until someone answers the question of "What will we do with (fill in name of your least favorite pest, ala Cooke/Gillies/Lapierre/Torres/etc.)?," I just can't sit up here on my pedestal and say fighting has to go.

Is there a way for the NHL to eliminate gratuitous Colton Orr vs. Brian McGrattan bouts that only happen because the combatants are on opposing teams and the two guys are willing to fight? Or the goalie fights that somehow got back into style last season? Probably. And maybe that's the direction we go in.

But the league can't just ban it. Matt Cooke needs to be made to answer for that illegal hit he just threw, and it shouldn't be solely Brendan Shanahan's job to make sure that happens.

Should the deaths of Rypien and Boogaard change the way you view fighting? That's ultimately up to you, but just remember that it might not be as easy as it all looks. And banning fighting won't stop players from running into trouble off the ice that could ultimately lead to more tragedies like these.

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