By Mark Madden
The Beaver County Times
September 6, 2011
Turns out that's wrong. People are dying.
Pro wrestling has one heck of a head start, but the NHL may catch up when it comes to suspicious deaths. John Kordic and Bob Probert were early entries. This summer has been a bonanza for dead enforcers, with Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak dying within a 111-day window.
Suicide, depression, drug and alcohol abuse -- it paints a seamy picture.
The NHL is determined to keep fighting in the game. Three deaths won't change that. Three hundred deaths wouldn't change that.
But people aren't meant to bust each other in the head with bare knuckles, then fall on an unforgiving surface like ice. Boxing and mixed martial arts use gloves. Fights are waged on canvas or mats. The ring has rules. The octagon, too. Hockey fights don't, except for some antiquated code that nobody can be bothered to write down, let alone enforce.
There's great physical risk. There's also mental risk. You live your life as a gladiator. That's not glorious, glamorous or even good.
With few exceptions, hockey thugs can't play. At all. Most men's recreational leagues have a fistful of players more skilled than Eric Godard.
You're out there to fight. No other reason. Lose too often, you're out of a job.
That's pressure. A different pressure than other players experience. A bastard, twisted pressure. Perhaps there's guilt knowing you're not good enough in the first place.
Just like hockey has outgrown the size of its rinks, hockey has outgrown the size of its players. Players were comparatively tiny in the days of the Original Six. Today's game features monsters. Look at Boogaard (6-foot-7, 265 pounds). These guys can do real damage in fights. These guys can kill each other.
Or, as it happens, themselves.
If fighting is banned, enforcers will lose their jobs. Would those individuals necessarily be better off? Don't know. But maybe they won't be dead.
Hockey has outgrown fighting on so many levels. It's the lone team sport that tolerates -- nay, embraces -- such utterly barbaric conduct. Supporters of fighting talk about the system of checks and balances allegedly provided, part of a grand scheme that minimizes cheap shots and protects the game's stars.
That system didn't protect Sidney Crosby. The Penguins had the second-most fighting majors in the NHL last season, yet Washington's David Steckel didn't hesitate to hit Crosby in the head with the puck nowhere near. That system didn't protect Boogard, Rypien or Belak.
The only person who can prevent Matt Cooke from playing like Matt Cooke is Matt Cooke. Atlanta's Evander Kane leveled Cooke with a nasty one-punch knockout in April, 2010. Didn't curb Cooke's style one bit.
It's all nonsense, anyway. The NHL isn't interested in protecting its players. The NHL wants to protect an antiquated version of hockey where toughness is as valued as skill.
The NHL doesn't protect its stars. The NHL doesn't protect its goons. So what, exactly, does the NHL do? Where's the concern for the greater good? For anybody's good?
The NHL needs to follow the NFL's lead and facilitate player safety by cutting down contact. Opening the game up would be a happy coincidence. Eliminate hitting in certain areas of the ice. Severely punish all head shots, not just those incidents that can be considered intentional beyond all doubt. Ban fighting.
The alternative: More dead, more concussion cases and TV ratings that are lower than bowling. Tradition isn't working as a business plan.
The NHL won't do what's right. Send a wreath, hug a mother, have a moment of silence, but nothing significant. Same old NHL.
But now, it's different. There's a body count.
Photo: Wade Belak (33) and Derek Boogaard, shown fighting in 2008, have both died in the past four months. (AP/Lynne Sladky)