The real danger in hockey

Colby Cosh on chunkheads, shot blockers, rhetoric and reality


Ryan Remiorz / CP

Hockey has started up again, and it goes without saying that the debate over fighting in hockey was not long in following. We were only a couple of hours into the big Habs-Leafs season opener when professional chunkheads Colton Orr and George Parros locked up for their second bout of the night. As it was winding down, the Leafs’ Orr fell and pulled Parros to the ice face-first by the jersey, causing millions to wince and the debonair Princeton graduate to lose consciousness briefly. Medics, acting out of their usual abundance of caution, carried off the bloodied Parros on a spine board.

Even as he was being treated, the calls for a permanent end to hockey fighting began to ascend to heaven. One doubts whether Parros privately welcomed this touching concern, since the most immediate effect of such a measure would be to run George Parros out of the National Hockey League at Mach 1. You could not help feeling that some people were hoping it might happen overnight while he was indisposed. “Sorry, George. We got together and decided to let your career die with dignity.”

This is not an argument in favour of fighting in hockey, but it was curious that the debate sparked up after an injury that was somewhat incidental to the fight itself. Moreover, nobody much felt the need to wait and find out whether Parros was seriously hurt, which he wasn’t, by hockey standards.

The rhetoric that follows ugly hockey fights descends immediately onto Twitter nowadays, seemingly of its own accord. You have obnoxious parents wondering indignantly how they will explain a fight to their saintly hockey-loving children, who have apparently never seen anyone bopped on the nose in a sandbox with a Tonka truck. You have the purists shouting that fighting is “not part of the game,” as if the “game” were a machine to be optimized, to be made as homogenous as possible as a matter of efficiency. You have the prophets of doom, warning that any day now an NHL fight will kill somebody: perhaps that will happen as soon as this sentence is printed, but it would be a first, and the league’s 98th birthday is right around the corner.

What strikes me is that almost all the objections to fighting apply equally well to the modern practice of blocking shots in the defensive zone with one’s body—a feature of the game that goes back 20 or 25 years, rather than 150, and thus cannot be defended as inherent to the play of hockey. Shot-blocking has already ended the careers of a few decent NHL players. Looking over the great pyramid of hockey, descending from the pros to recreational leagues, hard shots to the throat or the thorax have surely caused more deaths than fights ever did.

A recent study showed that in the current NHL pucks cause about as many concussions as fights, though that ratio will probably change as the visor-free players gradually disappear. That is without considering the more frightening injuries that pucks do cause and that fights by and large do not. If I had to bet on the cause of the next on-ice death in the NHL I would certainly back an ill-timed or unlucky shot block over a fight, and I would not need even odds.

Shot-blocking has its specialists, just as fist-fighting does. When we are denouncing fighting, we argue that the George Parroses of hockey must be forced to quit for their own sake—spared the lucrative temptation to risk life and health in the name of entertainment and vicious machismo. Shot-blocking, much more obviously than fighting, is not something a sane person would do for fun.

But how are the death-defying shot-blockers regarded? It should suffice to point out that the official league statistics do not tabulate the fights the game “tolerates,” but do count blocked shots. Commentators, even coaches and general managers, cite the figures and praise the league leaders. Maclean’s corporate sibling Sportsnet once included shot-blocking as part of a slapped-together “Grit Index” in a digital graphic.

Even the kind of relatively evolved hockey commentator who tut-tuts disapprovingly at an honest scrap will revert to old-timey type when some courageous plug stops a Chara one-timer with a face or ankle or scrotum. It is “taking one for the team,” which is precisely the unhappy, self-sacrificing behavioral pretext that is unanimously decried when Parros gets an owie. How can manly bravado be an ugly vestige of Neanderthality in one context and a stony old Roman virtue in another? Try explaining that one to your kids.


The real danger in hockey

  1. Ice hockey as it has evolved from a highly professional endeavor to violence on ice to raise ratings and revenues. The organizers, owners, players etc are banking on the re channeled tribalism that is hockey today.

  2. Agreed completely. Sooner or later, somebody will die on the ice, or shortly after being carried off on a stretcher. And it won’t be from a fight. It will be from getting in the way of a 100 MPH shot and having it hit the wrong part (like the head). Worse, they’re teaching kids to block shots now, and the coaches expect it of them.

    • Definitely an argument for full face masks, neckguards, better wrist padding as well as ankle padding if it can be done.

      • None of that will help, and in fact might be harmful. The more armour players wear, the more risks they take. And that is a big part of the problem nowadays. A 100 MPH shot to a helmeted head can still kill a person.

        • Anything is possible, but you have to look at the amount of harm reduction. And nobody is out there deliberately blocking shots with their face and neck – these are accidents for when it goes wrong, not body parts that are more likely to get in the way if they were safer.

  3. It wasn’t an overabundance of caution that called for the stretcher. He tried to stand up, didn’t, and it was called out. It was a completely sensible decision.

    • Honestly, can we read the material before we comment on it? I didn’t write “overabundance” and I didn’t say it wasn’t sensible. Some of you just can’t wait to start your little fingers moving as soon as your eyes are finished glancing at our copy.

  4. The explanation to the kids is neither difficult nor complicated.
    Fighting is a major penalty, even in the violence-loving NHL. It’s against the rules.
    Critics of fighting take issue with its irrelevancy to the flow of the game and, in the bargain, the hypocrisy of doing little to curtail men from hammering each other in the head with their fists, when some steps have been taken to reduce the incidence of head shots from blindside, high and late hits, owing to the obvious risk of brain injury.
    Blocking a shot, in the NHL as in the NBA, helps prevent a goal from being scored. It’s a risky play, and we have seen catastrophic injury from such plays, it’s true. It’s also a part of normal hockey action.
    Trent McCleary of the Montreal Canadiens was lucky not to lose his life after his larynx was crushed by a shot he was trying to block during a game at Montreal’s Bell Centre some years back.
    Both Clint Malarchuk and Richard Zednik suffered horrific, near-fatal injuries when they were cut in the neck area by skate blades.
    All three examples provoked dialogue about players wearing neck guards. That piece of equipment was made compulsory in Quebec and eventually across Canada in minor hockey after a youngster lost his life in a game when his jugular was severed with a skate blade.
    The NHL, historically slow to adopt helmets, let alone visors, was not about to make neck guards compulsory.
    Just how far hockey officials can or should go in bubble-wrapping the athletes, minimizing unacceptable physical risk, is an ongoing discussion.
    There are essentially two ways to do it: better protective equipment; and rule changes.
    But even in the NHL, there is consensus that cheapshots, be they head hits or hits from behind into the boards, for example, should not be tolerated. The injury risk, it’s believed, far outweighs the value of such hits to the game.
    The fighting debate is far from settled in the NHL, although it’s a simple ejection in many, if not most other hockey leagues.
    When voices such as those of Scotty Bowman, Jim Rutherford and Steve Yzerman suggest it’s time for the NHL to diminish fighting, closure on the issue may not be as far off as its adherents believe.
    As for equating fighting, a major foul, with shot-blocking, many believe the game can and should prosper without head shots, blindside hits, stick fouls and, yes, fighting.
    How the sport could go forward without attacking players shooting pucks and defending players blocking them is beyond me.
    Oh, and if you believe fighters and shot blockers are linked because both are ‘specialists,’ you obviously have missed the work of coaches like John Tortorella and many, many others, who believe all their players should help out in that area.
    During his tenure has Oilers head coach, Craig MacTavish used foam rubber pucks to train all his players in the art of blocking shots.
    It’s a skill, just like passing the puck, body checking, shooting and the rest.
    But your kids could have explained that to you.

  5. I can’t believe Macleans editors allow this garbage to be published on its site!
    1. The notion that fights don’t often cause injury is abjectly false. Fights rarely end up in people being carried out on a stretcher, but that doesn’t mean they don’t cause injuries. The evidence is beyond any doubt that blows to the head from fights, whether in a hockey rink or in a bar, cause permanent brain injury, whether or not a person is knocked unconscious or gets symptoms of a concussion.
    2. Saying that fights are not the only cause of head injuries is like saying that driving drunk or running a red light are not the only causes of death on the roads. So what? Are we supposed to allow drunk driving now because it’s not the only cause of fatalities on the road? It’s an absurd argument. The NHL and other hockey leagues have a responsibility to look at all causes of head injuries, including fighting.
    3. The notion that fighting is needed to protect star players is just plain nonsense. Well over 95% of all fights have nothing to do with protecting anyone, except perhaps the jobs of the players who get paid to fight. In fact, when star players do get injured, there are usually no fights that follow. The latest example is the Rangers’ Rick Nash who’s out with a head injury because of a hit from the Sharks’ Brad Stuart. No fight occurred there, did it?
    Mr. Cosh clearly has no idea what he’s talking about. And to top it all off, he calls parents “obnoxious” for teaching their kids non-violence, and wanting to protect them from head injuries. And no, Mr. Cosh, most parents don’t tolerate their kids giving someone a bop on the nose with a Tonka truck!
    Mr. Cosh has every right to live in the stone ages and trivialize fighting if he chooses to. But making statements that are blatantly false, and insulting parents in the process, is going too far! Macleans is supposed to be better than that!

    • I found the column a welcome breath of sanity. I’m also reasonably sure the writer was using hyperbole when employing the “Tonka truck” analogy, and not imagining any kid would use the industrial weight model.
      The positive from all this is that your cossetted Fauntleroy is sure to become a celebrated dancer in the future, and childless.

    • Non-fighting ex-hockey players (like Rick Martin for example) show the same type of brain damage as the goons.

  6. Shot blocking? A red herring. Hockey has not evolved the way other sports have in trying to eliminate injury, especially head trauma. Stopping play mid-game to have two men hit each other in the face with their fists is barbaric and savage. There is not enough interest in the game itself to attract fans. People love that violence and the NHL will provide it to make a buck. We have not moved far from the Roman collesium!!!!!!

  7. “Shot-blocking has already ended the careers of a few decent NHL players.” such as?

    Also you do realize that if pucks cause as many concussions as fights that shot blocks happen at about a 10-1 ratio to fights…so a fight is more likely to result in a concussion than blocking a shot. Also those “puck caused concussions” might include players you know that were NOT even trying to block the shot?

    I dont even care about fighting your argument is just terrible…

    • You can’t name players whose careers were ended by a shot block? If you don’t really know anything about hockey, why comment?

  8. I never cared for shot blocking in hockey; I find it completely nuts when guys in my beer leagues try it . . . they endanger themselves but also other players who might trip over them as they are not used to having someone sprawl on the ice (given the range of skill levels in these leagues).

    As hockey is a game that relies on its players proficiency at skating, I would like to see a rule introduced that would require players to to stay on their skates (of course they would be excused if they are knocked off their feet or fall accidentally like when losing an edge); under this scenario shot blocking would be permitted only if at least one blade remains on the ice, so I would anticipate we should no longer see players flinging themselves on the ice, but instead block shots standing up or on one knee. Anyways, I think goalies with all their gear should be expected to stop a few every now and then.

    One further effect of this would be more shots on goal, and probably more goals, which I believe the NHL would like fans to see.

    Interested to see what others think about this; I admit this is just musing and wonder what the unintended negative consequences of such a rule would be . . . maybe more foot and ankle injuries.

    • I was going to ask how one would make a rule against shot-blocking (I was thinking you would have to say they had to keep moving if in the puckholders shooting lane) but yours might be workable. You could add that it would have to take place behind the players own blue line (or between the puck and the net) and give the ref discretion on the matter (kind of like the “advantage” doctrine in soccer).