In a split-second, the hockey world saw tragedy. Twenty-one-year old Don Sanderson hit his head on the ice while playing for the Whitby Dunlops during a fight in a Major Hockey League game. After weeks in a coma, Sanderson succumbed to his injuries and died on Jan. 2. With this tragedy in mind, the NHL needs to debate the place of fighting in the league, at least for the sake of the Sanderson family.
The argument needs to be brought to the forefront. Precautions should be made in order to prevent this from happening in the NHL, or in any league ever again.
In the Major Hockey League, fighting is penalized with an automatic game suspension, yet it was Sanderson’s fourth fight in 11 games. Even in a league that does not permit violence, there seems to be no real attempt at reduction as it continues to happen, with players having multiple offenses from the rules set in place.
When fighting is debated, some suggest that the instigator rule should be removed. Yet, this empty rule is barely enforced. Finding the last time the instigator was enforced is like finding a hundred people who admit to liking the Atlanta Thrashers. The NHL rule book states that unless a player is deemed to be the clear aggressor in the fight, a game misconduct is only given if the instigator is called within the final five minutes of the game, or a player starts a fight for the second time. Allowing two acts of instigation shows that the rule is bogus, and that the league is inept at curbing fights.
It’s argued that fighting is an act done by two willing participants, who both know the risks involved. But the NHL is a business and an employer, and they owe it to their players to ensure their safety. They can educate the players about helmet safety all they want. They can change the rules deciding whether helmets remain on, or off, during fights. But ultimately, a tighter chin strap will not prevent a tragedy from happening again.
Don Sanderson’s death was an event guided by the changing hockey culture. We now see players who exclusively train to fight. They play for two minutes, sit in the box for five, and then are benched for the remainder of the game. The size and stature of these players have increasingly grown to accommodate the new perception of the hockey goon. Past goons actually played substantial minutes, put up decent numbers, and their ability to fight didn’t take away from their skill. Today’s goon is someone like George Parros who has a total of 19 points in five seasons, while having 490 penalty minutes.
Yet people protect fighting because they see it as a way for the players to police themselves. These same fans see the death of Don Sanderson as a tragic accident, but a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence. The accident has shed light on the dark side of fighting which should no longer be perceived as a sacred act that separates the game from other professional sports. Although people defend fighting to their grave, they demand no-touch icings and stop signs on youth players’ backs to help prevent serious injuries. While it’s true that driving, smoking, drinking, or eating fast food could kill us but isn’t outlawed, fighting in hockey is an act that that can be prevented. Hockey should be praised for skill, finesse, and strength that isn’t associated with a right hook.
The swift removal of violence from hockey is too harsh at this point. But it is time to seriously question its role within the game. The “sacred act” of fighting needs to be brought down to earth. Out of all the great hockey statistics, the game will forever be etched with one dark stat: one dead from a meaningless hockey fight, which is one too many.