Kill fighting in hockey – before it kills another fighter

Todd Bertuzzi basically assaulted Steve Moore on the ice in 2004, ending Moore’s career and breaking vertebrae in his neck.

We used to stand and roar whenever Bob Probert wore that mean-looking scowl, as he dropped the gloves and readied to pound someone’s face. “The Joe” would rock and roll. The decibel levels shot through the roof. Troy Crowder. Bob McGill. Marty McSorley.

Whoever big No. 24 faced, they were gonna get a knuckle sandwich.

We thought “Probie” was some sort of hero, a warrior in the Winged Wheel, a symbol of blue-collared Detroit.

Little did we know, we were cheering his brain damage.

Look: Fighting has to be expelled from hockey, right here, right now. It’s proven to cause a host of long-term problems, most notably Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which was discovered inside Probert’s brain tissue in March of 2011, eight months after he died.

Each punch, he was deteriorating. Each blow, his life was worsening. When Tie Domi flashed the boxing-belt sign to Madison Square Garden in 1992, he should have pointed to Probert’s head, because that was the real mark of defeat.

Too harsh? Hey, those are the facts. And now that we’re well-informed, let’s honor Probie and kill the act of fighting. Let’s save the brains of those who are too proud to drop their so-called art-form, because the typical NHL enforcer will never admit fighting needs to go. They’ll puff their chest, talk about how their fists protects players, polices the game and eliminates high-sticks, when all along, it’s just their pride getting in the way.

And pride always leads to a fall.

Four deaths and a ruined reputation
Let’s talk about another fall: The reputation of Todd Bertuzzi.

Nine years ago, he coldcocked Colorado’s Steve Moore – a purely classless move. If Bertuzzi was a Chicago Blackhawks right wing today, you would call him gutless and dirty and question why he’s allowed to play hockey, all while Moore’s career ended during the Ugliest Incident in NHL History. But some of you ignore it since Bertuzzi wears a Red Wings sweater. You’re the guy who cheers for “the clothes,” according to Jerry Seinfeld.

Anyway, if fighting was banned, Bertuzzi never throws a sucker punch, Moore’s permanent brain injury and broken neck never happens, and Big Bert never visits a courtroom.

Oh, speaking of necks, it’s only a matter of time before someone’s skate slices a jugular vein, Clint-Malarchuk-style. That nearly happened last month, when Jordin Tootoo’s blade came dangerously close to the neck area of Columbus RW Derek Dorsett. Maybe we need gore to send the “expel-fighting” message.

Or, maybe we need someone to die again.

Did we say die? Oh, yeah. Ask Michael Sanderson, who would love to have his son, Donald, back here in the flesh. But he can’t. Donald’s dead. Thanks to an amateur-league hockey fight, he perished on Jan. 2, 2009.

Donald’s helmet slipped as he tumbled to the ice, his head struck the rock-hard surface, he went into a coma, and three weeks later, he was gone.

Yes, that was a senior-league game. But it’s hockey, and it’s fighting on the ice, and it was such a widespread issue among Canada and all hockey circles, even NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was forced to issue a statement about it.

But some of you don’t care. You think it’s a fluke. You think, besides that incident, fighting is harmless.

Well, here’s three names for you: Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien. They thought it was harmless, too.

They dropped the gloves, cherished the crowd rising to its feet and the adrenaline coursing through their veins. They loved the man-of-all-men status, the teammates who banged sticks against the boards, and the crowd that roared a gladiator-like victory.

But now they’re all dead, and their families are mourning while doctors talk about a possible link between depression and the punches to their cranium.

Boogaard had CTE. His brain damage was detailed in the New York Times piece called “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.” In his final years, he had severe nausea, blurred vision and depression. He would break down, sobbing. He spent “tens of thousands of dollars” on painkillers, according to the Times.

One night, he took oxycodone and added alcohol to his system. The next day, he never woke up.

Blame a sport that breeds violence, because ever since a 16-year-old Boogaard broke someone’s nose in his first junior hockey fight, he was hooked. It was his ticket to a successful career, and his inaugural victory was cherished by snickering scouts and coaches.

Not so funny anymore, is it?

There are no happy fighters
Still think fighting is OK?

The list is narrowing. Even the enforcers who traded punches for years criticize it.

“The mental part is really hard to cope with – the fact that the fighting is always in your mind, in your head,” ex-NHL enforcer Georges Laraque said to CBC in September of 2011 in regards to the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien and Belak. “A lot of people can’t deal with the pressure in their mind – and they use drugs and alcohol to deal with that.

“We’re talking about three players who passed away. But there’s about another 50 of them that used to be heavyweights that have problems with alcohol and drugs, because of that role.”

Translation: There aren’t many happy fighters in the world.

Rypien and Belak committed suicide. It’s not proven they had CTE, but they were both depressed. Was there a link between their mental health and repeated punches to the head? It seems so. From the fall of 2002 as an 18-year old, through his death in 2011, Rypien fought 97 times in either junior hockey, the AHL or NHL. Who knows how many times he fought during his youthful years. Belak had 136 fights in the NHL alone.

It begs the question: Who wants to absorb haymakers to the head? Or think about smashing someone else’s face? What can that do to your psyche? Dave Schultz didn’t necessarily like it, and he was the Philadelphia Flyers’ legendary tough guy of the Broad Street Bullies in the 1970s.

In his book, The Hammer: Confessions of a Hockey Enforcer, Schultz wrote that he had trouble sleeping before he played at the Boston Garden. He stressed about facing Terry O’Reilly, the Tasmanian Devil.

“The last thing I’d want to visualize was not doing well,” said Schultz, according to the Flyers’website.

O’Reilly was 6-foot-1, 200-pounds. That’s an average size by today’s standards, a new era where enforcers lift weights regularly and learn fighting skills from trainers. A punch from Toronto’s Colton Orr (6-3, 220) has CTE written all over it.

Think about that every time you watch Tootoo drop the gloves and put up his dukes. Are you gonna stand and cheer when he starts throwing and absorbing punches?

You might be cheering the road to dementia.

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About Bruce Mason

Bruce Mason's work has appeared on blogs such as allpuck.com and obnoxiousfan.com. A Detroit native, he worked part-time at the Detroit News in 2006-07, freelanced for Crain's Detroit Business, and is now a five-time award winning writer at a daily paper in Idaho.