The gloves are dropped, the sticks thrown away. An animalistic rumble of anticipation sweeps through the arena as the two grown men circle each other menacingly. And then suddenly, without warning, it’s on. The men lunge at each other and begin to pound away, unloading haymaker after haymaker, as blood begins to fly over the otherwise pristine sheet of ice. By now, the atmosphere inside the arena is absolutely electric, with thousands of fans cheering and jeering. And then as suddenly as it began, it’s over. The referees rush in to forcibly separate the two men who are known as‘enforcers’ in the sport of ice hockey. One stamps back to the locker room sporting a bloody cut to the head while the other one skates to the ‘sin bin’ to wait out his five minute penalty.
As a big hockey fan myself, I do not deny that I love watching fights, whether they be to defend teammates, to swing the momentum of a game, or act aspayback for a previous crime. However, in light of an incident in a National Hockey League game this year, I, along with most of the hockey world, have begun to question the necessity of the blood sport of fighting in hockey. In a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, forward Shawn Thornton challenged Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik to a fight. Orpik refused. Thornton responded by tripping Orpik and then pounding his head into the ice until he was unconscious. But behind their show of bravado and masculinity, enforcers often nurse long-term physical and mental injuries that we as fans do not see.
Bob Probert was a fan favorite who participated in 240 fights throughout his fifteen-year NHL career. At the age of forty-five, he suffered a fatal heart attack after which his brain was donated to science. Researchers at Boston University found that Probert suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a degenerative disease brought on through repetitive brain trauma. Symptoms include memory loss, dementia, and depression. In the context of fighting, repetitive brain trauma could be a result of repeated blows to the head. Although there is no definitive link yet between fighting and CTE, researchers are finding more and more evidence that seems to point to this conclusion.
To enforcers such as Buffalo Sabres’ defense man John Scott, fighting is a difficult, yet necessary component of their professional lives. “I’ve stayed up nights not sleeping a wink because I know I’m going to fight someone the next day,” said Scott. “It’s not natural to go out and fight everyday, or to have that constant threat of a fight…Some guys might not be able to sleep, and they take some stuff to t help them sleep.” This fear led to the eventual substance abuse-related death of enforcer Derek Boogaard, who played for the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers. Despite the pressure, enforcers continue to fight, as it is seen as the only way that these less-skilled players can make it to the big leagues alongside their superstar peers.
Although fighting in hockey is a long and storied tradition that continues to draw droves of fans to the game, to support the continuation of fighting would be to ignore the plight of enforcers as human beings. Because of this, the constant fighting in the sport of ice hockey should come to an abrupt and definite close.
This article originally appeared in the April,2014 issue of UNIT-E. It was written by Edward Chang, a student at the International School of Beijing.
UNIT-E was founded in the spring of 2010 with the aim of establishing a non-profit, student-run magazine for international students in Beijing. Staffed by current students from a range of international schools, the magazine provides an amalgam of cultural tidbits, fragments of Beijing student life, and a broad spectrum of unique perspectives from a diverse group of young adults.
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