The Commons: ‘This is our game and we need to protect our players’

Oh, Patrice Cormier, look what ye hath wrought

by Aaron Wherry

“It is high time,” said Glenn Thibeault, the NDP MP for Sudbury, “this issue is taken seriously.”

Shortly thereafter he clarified just how seriously.

“Today,” he said, “we are calling on the government to establish a Royal Commission on violence in sports. We need to look at all aspects and all of the causes, from equipment to social trends, coaching and officiating. This is our game and we need to protect our players.”

Oh, Patrice Cormier, look what ye hath wrought.

At dueling podiums, Mr. Thibeault and his colleague, Thomas Mulcair, stood before a green-and-orange banner that read “Putting An End To Violence In Sports.” By “violence” they meant that which is “gratuitous, pointless and dangerous.” And by “sport,” they meant “hockey.”

“As always, many from the sports world are saying that it’s up to the leagues to discipline their players. That no one else should intervene. Well, we beg to differ,” Mr. Thibeault explained. “Lacing up a pair of skates does not give anyone a license to kill or go head-hunting.”

Indeed, that the NHL rule book does not include an explicit penalty for murder seems a shameful oversight.

Lest he be accused of hyperbole, Mr. Thibeault invoked the unimpeachable concerns of “sport moms.” “Some parents have pulled their kids from playing sports altogether,” he said. “So it is in their names that we are calling for a Royal Commission.”

Don Cherry should have much then to moan about this weekend. But if there is anything more off-putting than politicians inserting themselves into matters of professional sport, it is surely the insistence of professional sports authorities that they be insulated from outside scrutiny and Western standards of human behaviour. (“I don’t comment on their business and I don’t appreciate them commenting on ours,” Colin Campbell, the NHL’s director of operations, sniffed last week. “We take our business seriously.”) Indeed, when the Liberal government of the day very briefly entertained the thought of providing financial assistance to the league’s struggling Canadian squads some years ago, the NHL did not so much object to the intrusion as happily applaud it. “We are very appreciative,” Gary Bettman, the NHL’s commissioner, said then, “of the measures that the federal government has taken on behalf of National Hockey League teams in Canada.”

The audience here, a half dozen reporters fairly used to the ways of politicians, was initially skeptical. Well, first it was disinterested. But after a couple questions about the government’s climate change policy, then it was skeptical. ”Violence has been part of hockey ever since I remember it,” observed the first scribe, raising the specter of the Broad Street Bullies, “and I’m getting really old.”

Mr. Thibeault attempted to clarify. “I think it’s important to recognize that, yes, hockey has been a violent game, but it’s starting to get out of hand. It’s the head shots that are becoming more and more of an issue.” He proceeded then to explain how the fisticuffs of Bobby Clarke’s Flyers were somehow honourable.

It was Mr. Mulcair, a demonstrative prosecutor who talks as much with his hands as his mouth, who raised the small matter of science—and what it is now telling us about the legitimate and long-term dangers of blows to the head—and the haunting figure of Reggie Fleming, a Broad Street Bully whose brain is now Exhibit A in the debate about hockey violence.

The appeal was wide-ranging and broad, invoking young people, parents, elbow pads, the medical community, law enforcement, how we teach the sport and the risk that escalating violence might one day result in death. If they intended to present a various and complicated issue in need of thorough and careful examination, they perhaps succeeded. If a Royal Commission is at all the place for such an examination is perhaps another question entirely.

It was the Star‘s Richard Brennan, in his incomparable way, who pinpointed the precise tipping point.

“With all due respect, Sudbury is known to be a rough and tumble town,” he said to Thibeault. “Are you finding, even in the North, where, you know, rough hockey has always been played, not saying bad hockey or violent hockey, but rough hockey, are you finding that people are now approaching the subject of tackling the problem of violence in sports?”

“Very much so,” Thibeault said. “I have hockey moms coming to me now and saying, ‘I don’t want want my son or daughter to play because I’m scared. I’m scared they’re going to get hit, they’re going to get injured. And that’s always there, but when you start seeing these examples on TV and you’re witnessing it. For example, one mom mentioned to me that they went to four tournaments last year, at every tournament they went to, they visited the emergency room.”

And surely if our game is losing Sudbury, it is on the verge of losing everything.

The Commons: ‘This is our game and we need to protect our players’

  1. Do we really need a Royal Commission on violence in sports, or is the NDP just chasing headlines and pandering to hockey moms?

    • NDP pandering? Say it ain't so, Joe.

      • Show me a political party that doesn't pander, and I'll show you…….

    • B.

  2. On the other hand – at least the NDP isn't blaming the Cormier hit on the Harper government…well not directly…

  3. I'll quote Chris Selley on the subject:

    [What Patrice Cormier did] was super-duper-mega-illegal under the rules of every hockey league that ever existed, including the QMJHL — which is why Cormier's staring down a lifetime ban from the league, as he should be — and the NHL. And nobody, not Mike Milbury and not Don Cherry, condones it.

    We can and should debate the wisdom of banning shoulder checks to the head, which are currently legal in most leagues. But what Patrice Cormier did has nothing to do with that — any more than what Marty McSorely did to Donald Brashear or what Todd Bertuzzi did to Steve Moore or what Ted Green did to Wayne Maki have anything to do with it.

    • Ahem. It was also super-duper-mega-illegal under the Criminal Code.

      • So is every hit in everya hockey game, every tackle in a football, and even some rough fouls in basketball. Not to mention that many of the things doctors do to people every day could be characterized as assault.

        Every athlete understands that their taking a risk when they get on the field/ice/court. It's a personal decision and the government has absolutely no damn place in that decision.

        • Nope. Oh-so-way wrong. Bodychecks and tackles are in the rules of their respective sports, and a player enters the play area accepting these events as part of his participation. A head-hunting hard-plastic elbow pad to induce a seizure and concussion? Nope. Not in the rule book. That's in the Criminal Code. If you don't see the difference, then please stay off the ice.

          By the way, I agree a government inquiry is a dumb idea, unless it is to look into why the justice system fails to enforce the Criminal Code.

    • He looks too reflective. Like he's already on his third "Anudder ting" in his head before any words are coming out.

  4. Somebody PLEASE explain to me how the Czechs, Slovaks, Swedes, Norweigans, college and university players manage to play the game of hockey without fighting, and play entertaining hockey as well?

    Any sport that promotes fighting in the course of the game (with the exception of ring sports like boxing) by presenting FIGHTS as highlights on the evening sportscast cannot be taken seriously as a sport. Nor will it ever expand its appeal beyond the troglodytes.

  5. Yah, yah, we've heard all that before. Marty and Todd and Ted did things that other hockey players would never do. That's why they got chucked out of the game and criminal charges were laid for what in any other context would have been criminal assaults. . What? You mean they didn't ……

    Hockey players start in high school learning that they are above the rules. That if they can win games and championships for the school they get a pass on a whole lot of things that other students get nailed for. Plus they get to leave class and skip school for "team meetings" and practices. It makes them arrogant and selfish and often mean.

    • Sounds like somebody didn't fit in with the jock crowd in high school.

  6. Considering I don't even play hockey, this is a bit of a hot-button issue for me.

    For the sizable majority of the NHL's existence, helmets have not been mandatory. They haven't even been socially acceptable for most of that time. Then there was the Bill Masterton tragedy, and the Ted Green near-tragedy, and helmets were mandated.

    But, funny thing, a mandatory helmet didn't save Sherwood Park Crusaders captain Trevor Elton when he died of a clean body-check in an Alberta Junior Hockey League game. Nor did it save Don Sanderson of the Whitby Dragons after a fight when his chin strap wasn't done up properly.

    This isn't to say that a helmet has no protective value, but rather to say that there's no such thing as a magic bullet that will make an activity completely safe. Nothing worthwhile is without risk, and by sticking their fingers into sport Mulcair and Thibeault risk making nothing worthwhile rather than making everything risk-free, all in the name of having a capital-i Issue that they can parade before the public and look like caring legislators rather than dime store autocrats seeking to regulate every part of Canadian life that they think will make them look like more effective politicians.

    What's important is that teenagers who begin to play hockey when it becomes a truly risky activity are aware of those risks and how to prevent them. Wear a helmet and secure it properly. Keep your head up. Know when to pull yourself out of a game. Not the heavy hand of ill-conceived legislation that will never address every contingency and wind up just piling rule on top of rule on top of rule.

    But you'd have a hell of a time acting holier-than-thou behind a podium while demanding that, I suppose.

    • You may not play hockey now, but have you, perchance, played hockey in the past?

      • I have, but rarely and only recreationally. Soccer was my sport.

        • What level did you obtain in soccer? Surely you're no Owen Hargreaves (who I played against in my youth), but still…

  7. By all means keep the politicians out of the sport. But for the sake of peace, order and good government, by all means look into why the police don't file charges and (the rare time they do) why the Crown doesn't prosecute and (the rare time it does) why the conviction/punishment is so meaningless

  8. Second-division youth metro around Edmonton; in short, not very damned much.

    • Ah. I guess you're not the sports prodigy I thought you were ;-) .

      • Alas, I have pretty much precisely the level of athleticism you'd expect from somebody commenting at Macleans.ca.

        • You mean none at all? Alas, indeed!

        • I resent that. Hoops anyone?

        • Hey man, I work out regularly and can still remember my days as a figure skater.

          • Pardon me, dear disagreer(s), but how do you disagree with someone's workout habits? Have you been following me? *does the shifty eye thing*

  9. I just wish Mr. Thibeault cared as much about gun control as he does hockey control. I guess the slogan from the NDP is "Five years for boarding, but free shotguns for all!"

  10. I think at the end of the day the really important question – almost as important as exorbitant ATM fees – is whether or not Canadians are talking about this issue at their kitchen tables…or possibly at Tim Horton's.

  11. "I don't comment on their business and I don't appreciate them commenting on ours,” Colin Campbell, the NHL's director of operations, sniffed last week. “We take our business seriously.”

    Many would argue that they don't take it seriously enough. As mentioned above, it took forever to mandate helmets and despite all evidence that visors should also be mandatory, there does not appear to be any imminent move in that tdirection. Complicating the fact is that the players' union will nto step up in foavour of the health of its memebrs because its members are divided.

    In lots of other jobs, safety is forced onto workers because they will not accept the "bother" otherwise of safety harnesses, goggles, hearing protections, etc… And you still see lack of such equipment when work is being done on non-regulated sites by subcontractors.

    I believe both the league and the union are both potentially culpable if a player ever gets up the nerve to file suit because of negligence on their part to accept reasonable safety precautions.

  12. Hockey is a contact sport – there, I said it. As a contact sport, it carries with it risks that other sports may not.

    But there's a line between "contact sport" and "gratuitous violence" and, if the league can't draw that line, then the law needs to step in and do it for them. It's one thing to rise to the defense of your team – it's quite another to commit what would otherwise be an indictable offence in so doing.

    You don't need a Royal Commission to tell you that sports can result in long-term injury. You REALLY don't need a Royal Commission to tell you that bashing the back of someone's head in can result in loss of consciousness, convulsions, and death. We know bad stuff can happen when people go at each other armed with hard plastic and metal.

    • Bang on point. This commission would solve nothing. Is the federal government going to step in and start setting league rules across Canada? Come to the conclusion that charges should be laid in every on-ice assault? Where would they draw the line? How would these rules apply when players play in another country? I mean for goodness sake, shooting a frozen chunk of rubber at another person could very well constitute assault. How about going hard to the net and taking out a goalie or defensemen? Chasing down an icing call can be quite hazardous to ones health.

      The damn government has absolutely zero place in this debate.

  13. It is not 'our game', its getting increasingly frustrating to see and hear our identity as Canadians being defined around hockey. The NHL can go take a long walk off a short pier or go play in traffic for all i care.

  14. Maybe they really hate figure skating?

  15. Fair enough. I mean, on occasion even I object to some of the costumes in use.

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