The concussion suffered by Montreal Canadiens enforcer George Parros in the opening game of the NHL season has started a new round in the debate on fighting and hockey.
Two years ago fighting appeared to be on the ropes. Three NHL enforcers — Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak — had died in a four-month span, and with new understanding about the long-term impact of concussions, both doctors and former enforcers were speaking out.
Georges Laraque, the enforcer for the Canadiens when he retired in 2010, spoke about the mental pressure of the enforcer role in a 2011 CBC interview. “A lot of people can't deal with the pressure in their minds and they use drugs and alcohol to deal with that. The three players that passed away, there are another 50 of them that used to be heavyweights and have problems with alcohol and drugs because of that role.”
Neurosurgeon Robert Cantu and his team at Boston University were going public about their findings from studying the brains of deceased athletes, including NHL enforcers, and they often discovered degenerative brain disease caused by blunt impact to the head, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
"Any time I hear of an athlete who has had a lot of head trauma who commits suicide, I am immediately concerned that chronic traumatic encephalopathy may have played a role," Cantu told CBC News that summer.
Later that year, Cantu's team would determine that Boogaard had had CTE.
Then in December, neurologist Rajendra Kale wrote an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal calling for "a ban on all forms of intentional head trauma, including fighting, along with severe deterrent penalties such as lengthy suspensions for breaches."
Kale, then the journal's editor, didn't mince words about fighting in hockey: "This brutal tradition should be given up now that research has shown that repeated head trauma can cause severe progressive brain damage."
Change seemed to be in the air.
NHL 14 video game embraces fighting
But then, three weeks before the current season got underway, Electronic Arts and the NHL released their NHL 14 video game, with its new "enforcer engine," offering "the most authentic and exhilarating hockey fighting experience ever."
Their goal with NHL 14, they said, is to show "why fighting is important to hockey." Many observers were surprised to see an NHL product embracing fighting in the wake of earlier controversy and growing awareness about the potential for harm..
- Watch a video about NHL 14
- Watch the Inside The Game panel analysis of the Parros injury
- Community blog: George Parros, Colton Orr brawl reignites NHL fighting debate with CBCSports.ca readers
On Monday, the day before the opening game, CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge asked NHL commissioner Gary Bettman about hockey, the fans and fighting. "It's what is special about our game," Bettman said, adding, "We don't go out of our way to market or promote that, it is what it is and happens when it happens and while some people would prefer not to see it in the game, other people enjoy seeing it."
Bettman also told Mansbridge, "No damage done. Nobody gets hurt, [it] takes down the temperature."
The commissioner wanted to make the point that "before you make a fundamental change and say, OK, we are changing the rule on fighting, you know, you fight, you are gone for two weeks, you have to be very careful, it needs to evolve."
It was the next night that George Parros was carried from the ice on a stretcher after a fight.
Risk of 'death on the ice'
For former NHL enforcer Jim Thomson, Parros's injury brought back memories of Don Sanderson, a player in the Ontario Hockey Association, whose death in 2009 followed an on-ice fight. And he thinks about two other hockey players who died too young, Bob Probert and Boogaard.
"We saw their brain studies, doesn’t it tell us the violence to the brain should stop?" Thomson said to CBC News Network host Carole MacNeil on Wednesday. Thomson played with six NHL teams in the '80s and '90s.
"They say that you don’t get hurt in fighting," he remarked about the Bettman interview. "I can tell you, you get hurt, all the injuries I had, concussions, hitting my head on the ice, broken hands and that, there are injuries in fighting."
Thomson's solution: "Limit it to one fight and that’s it, you’re out of the game." He fears “death on the ice” if something isn’t done.
Thomson told MacNeil he hated being the enforcer, that he doesn't even use the word. "My last year of fun hockey was basically my last year of midget, when I scored 68 goals.”
A Bauer Sports-Hockey Canada survey released in August found that safety concerns and a feeling that hockey isn't "fun" were two of four top reasons children are giving up the game.
The survey came out of a concern about the slow growth of minor hockey, and Thomson expresses the same concern.
"When I see hockey teams folding in minor hockey and I talk to parents — I’m on the heartbeat of that — [they say] I am done with the violence!"
Fear, anxiety and addiction
Thomson told MacNeil about the fear and anxiety that goes with being an NHL enforcer, and the result. "I got into alcohol, where a night before a game I’d be drinking just to calm the pressures of that, and that turned into painkillers to calm the anxiety.”
He had to go to the NHL’s rehab to deal with his addiction. Thomson also said “it had a lot to do with the violence in my life ,and I wasn’t a violent person."
Parros knew what his role would be as the Habs' enforcer. "I’m brought to a team for a certain reason, I embrace that role," he told the Montreal Gazette last month.
Of course, fighting in hockey isn't confined to the NHL. Some people are more concerned about what's happening at lower levels of the game.
Agent and scout Jason Nadeau isn't opposed to fighting, but he told CBC News that "below major-junior, there's certainly no reason for it, other than the spontaneous incident" that should still be penalized severely. Above that level, Nadeau said, they're preparing players for the NHL.
Some of his clients have been told that to achieve their NHL dream they would need to become enforcers. He works mostly with younger players and has had to tell a few of them that the enforcer's life is not an easy one and it's not fun.
At the lower levels, he said, "you still have these old school coaches that are out there saying, 'That's the way the game is played,' and I think that's wrong."
But above that level, "when the fight starts, all those fans are on their feet, screaming and yelling, and that's money, and that's what this business is about."
Thomson described some midget AAA games he's attended as "really barbaric."
"Take the violence out at the top, and it will filter down to minor hockey."
And when it comes to those fans, many of them have kids who play minor hockey.