Between Blue Lines: A brief history of Ice Hockey fights

8 Mins read

On December 12, 1933, Boston Bruins played the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Boston Gardens: The events that would unfold would be something nobody anticipated – an infamous moment in ice hockey that would end the career of legendary Leafs right-winger, Ace Bailey.

On the ice, Hall of fame inductee Eddie Shore attacked Bailey from behind, mistaking him for another member of the Maple Leafs team, King Clancy.

Bailey went down and hit the ice, fracturing his skull, and two brain operations later the NHL points leader was facing something he considered even worse than death – an end to his playing career.

This sort of event is hardly rare in sport, injuries happen in all professions and some are unfortunate enough to end careers, but what isn’t talked about so much is how fighting has become so ingrained in the culture and history of ice hockey, and how the NHL’s attitude towards fighting, and the health problems that can often arise from the violent nature of the sport, has often been questionable.

[pullquote align=”right”]“There’s such an ingrained culture in men’s hockey that relates to fighting.”
Zoë Hayden, Editor Victory Press[/pullquote]

In 2011, Canadian left-winger Derek Leendert Boogaard, an infamous ‘enforcer’ or ‘goon’ of the sport, died from an accidental drug and alcohol overdose whilst recovering from a concussion caused by a fight on the ice.

A posthumous examination of Boogaard’s brain found he had been suffering from an advanced stage of CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative disease found in people who have suffered repeated traumas to their head.

Just four months after Boogaard’s unfortunate death, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, two other enforcers, also died.

Rypien, in his late twenties, committed suicide after suffering a debilitating knee injury, and Belak, just 35, died after suffering a concussion he attempted to fight with drugs and alcohol.

Their deaths raised a number of important issues among the ice hockey community, particularly for the role of the enforcer, with this leading to more pressing concerns brought to the attention of the ice hockey press and players about whether more should be done by the NHL to protect players from events attributed to violence.

Their deaths were even enough for players to file a lawsuit against the NHL last year, targeting a study at Boston’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy which drew a link between playing in the league and CTE.

Research into CTE is hardly comprehensive: the disease was formerly known as Dementia Pugilistica (DP) and was mainly attributed to boxers and American football players, but its symptoms are generally said to begin 8-10 years after suffering repeated or repetitive mild traumatic brain injuries.

These symptoms have been likened to those of dementia, such as memory loss, social instability, erratic behaviour and poor judgement.

Last September, Boston University and the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that a study showed signs of CTE in 87 out of 91 brains from former NFL players.

  • Ottawa Senators enforcer Chris Neil
    Accumulating over 2,000 penalty points has seen Ottawa Senators enforcer Chris Neil become one of the NHL's most disciplined players. [C.P Storm/Flickr CC]

American football players are also currently engaged in a lawsuit against the NFL in relation to concussions and brain injuries, and if CTE is so prominent in the NFL, ice hockey surely can’t be too far behind those statistics.

But why is fighting such a prominent part of the game, and would it still have the same excitement and passionate following without it?

Ice hockey itself is said to have begun as early as the 18th century, as a game played on thick ice, devoid of any real rules, and played right in the middle of rural Canada – a country which, at the time, had high crime rates and vast poverty.

As the confines of the game became more intense over time, especially with the introduction of blue lines and new rules such as ‘icing’, the already volatile nature of the sport increased, leading to games often boiling over into violent episodes.

The lack of set rules or penalties for violent play meant that perpetrators of the violence didn’t face any real punishment for their actions; instead teams started to use fighting as a tactic to prevent things getting too heated on the ice.

The role of the ‘goon’, or ‘enforcer’, was then essentially invented to restore balance to the play, protecting star players from being forced out of the game by overtly violent tactics.

The ‘goon’, not always the most technically-gifted or skilful player on the team, would be on the ice to offer out anyone continually taking cheap shots or using dirty tactics against more proficient players.

Former Coventry Storm left-winger Joseph Day, who now plays for French team La Broquerie Habs in Canada, has played the role of the enforcer since he was a teenager, both in the UK and in Canada.

“The term goon basically means somebody on the ice who ensures his team can play the game they want to,” he explained.

“He protects the top players because the opposition might think twice about taking cheap shots at him. I actually see my own role as more of a protector. I don’t go looking for fights.”

The sport also has a number of unwritten rules in regards to fighting, and although there is nothing prominently written into the official rules of the game, there is what’s known among players as ‘the code’.

According to Joe: “Typically it’s gloves and helmets off, and you don’t hit a player when he’s down. My philosophy is basically just to treat the guys with respect. I’d rather stand off someone and then go toe-to-toe than be taking cheap shots at anybody.”

Joe’s mentality seems to be consistent throughout the sport, from the very top level to amateur level, and this is perhaps why fighting has been, to an extent, successfully used in the sport.

On the flip side of this, it’s also created a completely new aspect to ice hockey, where players become infamous ‘tough guys’ renowned almost solely for their fighting ability, and fans take particular interest in watching the more aggressive enforcers fight each other throughout the course of a season.

Things can sometimes go a little deeper than simply protecting the teams star players too: “There’s always someone at the top you want to take down,” Joe says. “When there’s a top notorious fighter he’ll get a lot of offers because people want a shot at him.”

“Things can carry over as well,” Joe explains. “If somebody did something you weren’t happy with the last time you played against him, it’s natural to want to get retribution.”

“I fought a few guys in England multiple times, so every time I’d play against them I’d know they’d want to go.”

The impact that fighting has on the balance of play means that it’s an aspect of the game that could probably never be removed altogether, at least without severe backlash and decline in fans’ interest.

“Hockey wouldn’t be the same,” Joe concludes. “Ice hockey is a super fast, hard, aggressive sport. Tempers boil. Without the option to fight when things get too much it wouldn’t be the same.”

[pullquote align=”right”]“Typically it’s gloves and helmets off, and you don’t hit a player when he’s down. My philosophy is just to treat the guys with respect.”
Joseph Day, La Broquerie Habs[/pullquote]

The issue of fighting doesn’t just exist in the men’s game either. Women have played the sport since it started back in the 1800s, and although their game is supposedly meant to be contact free, that hasn’t stopped it being played with the exact same level of intensity.

Zoë Hayden, editor of Victory Press, spoke about the prominence of fighting in the women’s version of the game, and whether the issues of CTE remain the same.

She offered interesting insight into the cultural importance of fighting in ice hockey, and how there is in fact notable backlash from some journalists and players who even want to see fighting completely eliminated from the sport, or at least be taken more seriously.

“In women’s ice hockey there isn’t the same culture, but we do also have to be mindful of the risks. There is recent research that suggests women are even more susceptible to concussions and post-concussion issues than men are,” she told Artefact.

“It recently weathered a big potential scandal with Denna Laing’s severe spinal cord injury in the Outdoor Women’s Classic, and I’m not certain it’s worth it to passively permit fighting – as the NWHL has done by making fighting a five minute major – rather than an automatic suspension, as it is in the CWHL.”

“It’s also important to acknowledge that women playing the game will have the same urges to protect their teammates and police the game, as after all they are playing the exact same sport as the men are.”

Zoë offers that “officiating in the sport is also historically terrible” and that “there’s nothing wrong with wanting to protect your teammates; but ideally, the sport can get to the point where this isn’t a frequent concern, and therefore, dropping the gloves will be a less automatic response.”

She concludes: “The main thing that will help is to not treat fighting like an ideal of toughness or a masculine ideal, or as part of the game. It is no more wrong in women’s hockey than it is in men’s hockey.”

However, sometimes it takes something as serious as a death in a sport to really force issues such as this open, and it seems the NHL are finally starting to acknowledge the safety of its players.

Although it is becoming clearer what is causing CTE in ice hockey players, without actually knowing how prominent the disease is, it is difficult to gage the lengths the sport, and the NHL in particular, needs to go to prevent it.

If the only way to prevent CTE is to avoid traumas to the brain completely, then the players of the sport will have to simply accept that it’s an inevitable part of the sport and come to terms with those risks.

Placing restrictions on the sport is not a decision that would be taken lightly either, and it would have drastic repercussions on how the sport is both played, and, ultimately, enjoyed.

Whilst the problems for the players are obvious, this should also be looked at from the perspective of the fans too, since their interest often hinges not only on the entertainment the sport offers, but the fashion in which it is currently played and has been played for decades – with fighting an imperative part of how things are done.

It’s also clear that fighting hasn’t become ingrained in the culture of ice hockey out of some kind of masculine thirst for violence, it’s something that was born out of necessity, and actually something that has gone hand-in-hand with it since the very beginning.

But with research offering clearer insights into the implications faced by brain traumas in the sport, particularly the pretty damning statistics coming out in relation to CTE, players will at least be more aware of the serious risks involved.

These advancements in understanding how brain trauma is affecting NHL players should also mean that the NHL can, and should, be offering far more support to its players who are dealing with these issues, and making sure genuine help and support is being offered to those showing signs of CTE.

It is certainly within the NHL’s best interest to take a firmer stance on this issue, and if eliminating certain aspects of the game that pose particular risk of brain trauma is a necessary action, then that could be possible through more consistent ruling and more severe penalties applied to fights.

There does come a time when things do have to change, and it’s only then that the sport will be able to progress to prevent issues such as CTE, but this only comes through further understanding and appreciation of the issues.

Most fans would agree that the cases of players such as Ace Bailey, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypian and Wade Belak are nothing short of tragedies, and should lead to a serious debate over how things are done in the NHL.



Featured image by Amanda via Flickr CC

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