What might have been: Paralympian Dean Bergeron
Why he talks candidly now about hockey fighting and its effect on the sport
When Dean Bergeron first heard about Don Sanderson's death, caused by a hockey fight, he thought back to a day in August 1987.
He couldn't help it. That's when a similar situation changed his life forever.
"I was in shock [when I heard about Sanderson]," Bergeron told CBC Radio's Teddy Katz of The Inside Track. "I could have been the guy who died 20 years ago, the one who died for sure."
Bergeron was in a fight during a training camp scrimmage on Aug. 25, 1987, while he was a member of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Shawinigan Cataractes. Bergeron's helmet came off during the fight — exactly what happened to Sanderson in December 2008.
And, like Sanderson, Bergeron's unprotected head hit the ice.
"After Dean fell on the ice, the sound it made. Everybody stopped," Enrico Ciccone, Bergeron's teammate at the time, said.
'We knew right away'
"It was a different sound that we're not used to. We looked at Dean, and you know I can still hear the sound. It's hard to describe. It was like something really raw like a piece of steak hitting the ice. With a crack. We knew right away."
It was the sound of Bergeron's neck snapping.
"I woke up, and there's a lot of people all around me and I'm trying to move but I can't," Bergeron said.
Soon he would find out that he was completely paralyzed from the neck down. He was 18 years old, heading into his second year of junior hockey.
"I started crying, because I didn't know what was going on," he said. "I didn't know why my legs didn't move anymore."
Conisders himself lucky
He considered himself lucky, though, when he heard about what happened to Sanderson. The Whitby Dunlop defenceman fell into a coma and passed away a few weeks after his fight.
"It's surreal, because in my head I should have been the only one who had this accident," Bergeron said.
It's because of incidents like Sanderson's death that makes Bergeron, now 40 years old and a Canadian Paralympic gold medallist, speak up about what happened to him. But it wasn't an easy thing to do.
"I sued the league, team and my coach, arguing this accident could have been prevented," he said. "We settled, and I said then I would not put fault on anybody. I'm still respecting that settlement but the way I see how information was transmitted to the journalists and all that, I said the thing has to stop.
"The truth has to go out."
Fight or go home
And the truth is, Bergeron felt he had no choice when he was in the junior ranks — it was either fight or go home.
"We were playing a game [in 1986], losing pretty bad, and the coach came into the dressing room," he said.
"He starting yelling, and asked everybody who hadn't had a fight yet in this league to lift their hands, and I was the only guy. So he turned at me and said 'Dean, if you don't have a fight before end of game just take your things and go home.'
"So I knew what I had to do. I had to fight. And I was afraid of fighting."
Bergeron says that's what happened on that fateful scrimmage in August of 1987 — he was spurred by his coaches to settle matters with his fists.
League remembers differently
The QMJHL remembers things differently, however.
"It was not a consequence of a fight," said Gilles Courteau, the league's commissioner. "It was pushing and shoving in front of the net, if my memory serves me correct."
Bergeron has at least one backer — Enrico Ciccone, his former teammate who spent nine years in the NHL as one of the league's most feared enforcers.
"I was stunned when I heard [what Courteau said]. I was two feet from the guy and that was a fight," Ciccone said. "[Dean] fell on his head, broke his neck, and the coaches were sending players to fight on the ice.
"That's what made me mad about it: 20 years, and everything was put under rug. And that's not right."
After a highly publicized incident involving goalie Jonathan Roy last year, the QMJHL instituted tougher punishments against players who instigate fights.
The video was seen everywhere. It showed Roy skating the length of the ice and attacking an opposing netminder who didn't want to fight.
And many noted that it appeared that Roy's head coach, Patrick Roy (his father), gestured to him seconds before the goalie skated down the ice started throwing punches.
But even with tougher punishments, fighting is still as ingrained in hockey culture as it was more than a century ago, especially at the junior levels.
"In Quebec it's a very, very sensitive subject," said Bergeron's wife, Fanny Truchon. "My God, it's a lot more sensitive than a lot of political subjects. It's so ingrained that it goes hand-in-hand, hockey and fights.
"It makes the show better. It makes hockey better and it could never be different. It's so deep within our genetic codes. As a hockey fan, I include myself in that. I think it's a long road ahead before you see real change, and the people who will want to make those changes will be ostracized."
Ciccone's problem is with the coaches who force kids, like Bergeron back in '87, to fight when they don't want to.
"When I spoke loudly about this [issue], a lot of players and retired coaches said, 'If [Dean] was unhappy doing that he could have gone home,'" Ciccone said. "That is a stupid comment. Everybody's dream is to play in the NHL. I wanted so much. If they would have told me to jump off a bridge, I would have jumped off a bridge."
But Bergeron still wishes he spoke up beforehand, even though it probably meant an end to his NHL dream.
"I knew it was not what my instinct or what my soul was telling me to do," he said. "I should have listened to myself, because my inner voice was telling me not to fight.
"And if I had listened to myself, I would be on my two feet today."