Will a Ban on Body Contact Prevent Traumatic Brain Injury in the NHL?

“Turncoats” & “Pukes”:

The summer of 2011 saw tragedy for the NHL.  Three retired enforcers, Derek Boogaard (28),Wade Belak (35) and Rick Rypien (27),  met tragic ends.  The deaths this summer came soon after news that several other retired enforcers who had met similar ends had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) the result of repeated traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

Enforcers are players whose primary role is to fight with a player on another team with the goal of removing the player from the play through physical contact.

Two weeks ago Hockey Night in Canada juggernaut Don Cherry spoke out about the issue and attacked several retired enforcers who were now calling attention to the issue.

Below is a conversation I had with Launy Schwartz of Hockey54 on changing social norms for the NHL, preventing TBI and Don Cherry’s lagging relevance in the hockey realm.

The Conversation:

The issue of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in hockey seems to have been brewing for a while.  What do you think prompted Don Cherry to speak out on Coach’s Corner?

In the last few weeks there have been some quotes floating around from some former enforcers, namely, Stu GrimsonChris Nilan and Jim Thomson.  A lot of those quotes had been misrepresented and

misinterpreted by a lot of people.  I actually think Cherry’s views on fighting in hockey are antiquated and don’t have a place in the game anymore. Launy SchwartzSo what was the issue, really?

I think, regardless of the veracity of those quotes, Cherry took those quotes, and used his platform to amplify his own views on the topic.  I think it was absolutely wrong.  These are guys who gave their lives fighting in the NHL and now looking back on what that career has cost them, and while they don’t outright want to ban fighting, there were issues after their retirement that allowed for some reflection.  

I think everyone does that.  They look back on a decision they made or a job they took when they were younger and in hindsight thought they shouldn’t have done it.

Yes, and everyone has the right to do that.  No matter what career you choose, you’re allowed to look back and say, “what was I thinking?!”  In the case of these guys it happens to be in the NHL and they happen to have actually hurt themselves.  They have the right to say that and not be debased and called “pukes” and “turncoats” on national TV.

What did most people seem to take issue with?  Was it the language used, that it was a personal attack on two players or his views on TBI?

To be honest, it was probably the former instead of the latter.  His language was inflammatory and these are guys that we feel like we know by and large.  These are guys that said, “I was young and look what it has done to my life and I want to prevent others from doing the same.”  But I really don’t think that TBI played into it significantly.

It seemed like Cherry’s comments were almost universally denounced.  How much do you think his opinions reflect those of the average hockey fan?

You know, I think there was a time when his opinions did reflect the game as it was, but he’s out of touch now.  He’s talking about the game that was played twenty or thirty years ago, not how the game is played now.  His opinions on fighting are antiquated.  Fighting isn’t part of the game, it disrupts the game.  Look at Olympic hockey.  That’s hockey at it’s best, and I can’t remember the last time there was a fight in an Olympic hockey game.

I can’t argue with the numbers.  He’s the highest paid personality on the most watched show in Canada and that has to account for something.  For right or for wrong he has a pulpit and he can make a decision about how to use it.  Right now he’s getting in the way of good hockey.

So, if Cherry’s getting in the way of good hockey and the well-being of these guys, how do you change that?

To get the people in charge to change their opinion on fighting in the game, we’ve got to change the view that  Rangers fightit’s normal and Don Cherry isn’t helping that.  It seems like in the past 10-15 years we’ve all just accepted that fighting is a normal part of the game, and it isn’t.

We’ve got to make that kind of opinion unacceptable, not by banning it, by creating outrage when people like Cherry do go off.  50 or 60 years ago it was acceptable to use racist or sexist language and that’s changed now.  Unless it’s a case of hate speech, we didn’t make it illegal to say those things, but we made it unacceptable to say them.  We need to do the same about fighting in hockey.

Where we do that is at the minor hockey level.  We’ve got to change the game the kids are playing at the pee-wee level and what they think hockey is all about.

But if they’re watching fighting on Hockey Night in Canada, don’t they want to play like the pros do?  Shouldn’t this be changed at the NHL level?

This isn’t going to change at the top.  The NHLPA [National Hockey League Player’s Association]’s job is to look out for the players’ interest and right now we’ve got a bunch of guys who were put on a team just to fight.

There are a lot of people out there who think this is about taking jobs away from guys who are playing now.  We’ve got guys in the league who may only get three to five minutes of game play and their only job is to skate on and take another player out of the game.  What do you do with those guys?

I’d like to believe that those guys didn’t get their jobs just because they can fight.  You put a guy on a team, or rather, you should put a guy on a team, because they can skate and play a good game of hockey, not because they’re a prize fighter, so if you take fighting out of the game, these guys should still have jobs.

Because the NHLPA represents the interests of the guys playing the game now, they can tend not to protect their interests later, or the new guys coming up.  Look at helmets and how long that took to mandate them. They don’t even make you wear facial protection now –

Wait, you don’t have to wear a visor?

Nope.  You gotta wear a helmet, but not a visor.  Kids playing minor hockey now have to wear a visor or a cage, but the pros don’t.  The players only have one set of eyes, we all do, but the guys don’t want to have to wear them.  So the NHLPA isn’t going to force the issue.  That’s a huge safety issue!  The NHLPA is going to do what the players want, and if they players want to sacrifice their own health and safety because they think it’s annoying or restricts their view, then the issue ends there.

I remember hearing about Belak’s death this summer on CBC Radio, and I remember the newscaster saying something to the effect of, “it makes you wonder if there’s something about being an enforcer.”  I actually said, out loud, “yes, it’s called a traumatic brain injury! Don’t make it something mysterious.”

I think there’s been a lot of people rushing to take one issue and make it fit what happened this summer.

Ovecheckin SubbanWhat do you mean?

These were three guys in three very different situations.  Two have been ruled a suicide and another was a drug overdose.  The only thing that ties them together was that they were enforcers.  If they were a goalie, an enforcer and a finesse player would we be all rushing to say it was TBI?  No.

But they’ve seen evidence of TBI with [Reggie] Flemming and [Bob] Probert, who were both enforcers.  They also found it with Rick Martin, who wasn’t an enforcer and only had one concussion.  The disease wasn’t as far along as with the enforcers who died this summer, but it was there. 

You know guys have been getting their bells rung for years.  You stood up, shook your head and skated it off.  It wasn’t until recently that people started taking it seriously. There’s no doubt you’re going to get your brain rattled a little bit when you play hockey.  It’s called a body check and not a head check.  I don’t think we should be taking contact out of the game.

But, I don’t think you can take every bad thing that happens to a hockey player and pin it on TBI.  Like I said, Belak and Rypien did, unfortunately, commit suicide but Boogaard died of an overdose.  Three completely different situations.

Wait, I’m a little confused about your position.  You want to take fighting out of the game but not checking?  A TBI occurs in sports, usually, when someone’s skull stops moving, but their brain keeps moving inside their skull.  You can injure your brain from being checked into the boards, not just a head shot.

But that’s the problem, you shouldn’t.  Checking is meant to separate the player from the puck and it’s supposed to be done shoulder to shoulder, not shoulder to head.  If you do it right, the risk of injury is lessened by the blow.

That was the argument they made 15 years ago when they lowered the hitting age in minor hockey to 11. But it’s proven to be the opposite.  Now 25% of the league body checks, but accounts for 50% to 89% of all the injuries in the league.  It seems like teaching kids to hit at a young age so they don’t do serious damage when they’re older isn’t working.

When you’re a teen and you’re learning to drive, they teach you how to drive defensively.  Right now we’ve got a bunch of kids who don’t know how to check or take a hit, and those kids get drafted into the NHL and we have the problem we have today.

I don’t like to argue with the numbers, but how long have we been keeping statistics?  Show me the injuries reported from the 70’s compared to 2011 and then we can know if it’s not working, but until then, you can’t convince me of that.  Checking belongs in the game from now until the end of time!

So, do you think that most Canadians view TBI as a sort of “excuse” for the bad behavior of young guys who got rich quickly?

I think there’s always going to be a contingent that thinks that.  Sometimes that is going to be the case, some people are going to make bad decisions.

Launy Schwartz is the host of The Hockey54 Show on 102.5 The Game, Sports Radio Nashville, and co-founder of Hockey54.com. If you want to tweet him, you can find Launy@TheSchwartz54.

References & Resources:

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