A week and a half ago 21-year-old Don Sanderson died in a Hamilton hospital.
Sanderson, a defenceman with the Whitby Dunlops, died early yesterday in Hamilton General Hospital. He had been in a coma and on life support since his head struck the ice during a fight in a AAA senior league game Dec. 12 in Brantford.
I’d held back on posting until the shock of the death had passed and the debate turned, as it naturally would, to whether fighting would be banned. I’ve been waiting, but the debate has not come. The lone discussion I’ve heard so far is whether the rules governing the tightness of helmet chin straps (which might have held Sanderson’s helmet on when he fell to the ice) should be more strictly enforced. This seems akin to enforcing seat belt laws for street racers, rather than trying to stop street racing itself.
Anyone calling for an end to fighting in hockey is met with ridicule (even Serge Savard), even deemed unpatriotic or lacking understanding of the game. Horseshit. Fighting proponents quote some circular argument about ‘the unwritten code’ of hockey, that fighters are there to ‘take care’ of a guy who breaks the rules, and respect each other, presumably as they punch one another in the face. Meanwhile referees, old hockey guys themselves, give out penalties for some infractions but look the other way for others if they think a team’s fighter will take care of things, thus perpetuating this myth of fighters being necessary for the game. This mutually supportive argument spins itself in a spiral, but in the face of logic eventually defaults to the tired plea that “it’s always been this way”, surely the silliest rule for why anything should continue.
The other argument, say fight fans, is that without fighting hockey won’t be entertaining. This is an easy one to dispel, as anyone who’s watched even a few minutes of a World Junior game, or any international tournament, can see.
It’s a difficult position to justify that hockey alone is the one league that requires fighting, or at the very least does not punish it (beyond a meaningless 5-minute penalty). In every other major sport, fighting is strongly discouraged (not tacitly allowed) and results in automatic suspensions. The only other sport where fighting is part of some kind of protective ‘code’ is baseball, surely the pussiest of the major sports. Football, on the other hand — which by any measure is as tough, smash-mouth and brutal as hockey, and almost certainly more so — does not allow fighting.
Staying with the NFL for a moment, imagine the absurdity of a scene where an offensive linesman, unhappy at the fact that his quarterback was tackled (clean though it might have been) grabs the opposing player by the jersey, rips off his helmet and starts punching him in the face. The other player starts punching back. No teammates try to break them up, and linesman (understandably) wait until they tire themselves out before interfering. The referee, knowing a teammate would come to the defense of the downed quarterback because of the unwritten code of football, doesn’t bother throwing the penalty flag. He knows these guys just need to let off a little steam. He also knows that if he doesn’t let these guys duke it out at midfield like this, that the other nasty penalties like clipping or face-masking will just happen more often. So goes the common wisdom, without much evidence to back it up.
Back to reality, and to hockey: there’s simply no logical argument for allowing fighting in the NHL, but as long as troglodytes like Don Cherry advocate for it, it’ll be around. If Gary Bettman wants to leave a legacy of actually improving the game, he should ban fighting and watch the rest of the world take his sport more seriously. So long as players in the world’s premier hockey league are allowed to beat each other bloody in the middle of the ice, and then do it again the following night (or even minutes later!), precious few outside of Canada will associate the game with skill, grit or speed. They’ll associate it with thuggish brutality.
Finally, I submit that fighting should be banned if only to prevent pathetic displays like this from ever again occurring: