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A game-changing idea

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Can you believe those Canucks?

And, no I'm not talking about the fact they are in the playoffs. I'm talking about the out-of-control fighting in their bouts with the Calgary Flames.

I had been chalking it up to playoff fever, and cutting them some slack, until I watched the Winnipeg Jets and Anaheim Ducks game on April 20. Here were two very passionate teams, the Jets in the playoffs for the first time since 1996, and fighting to stay in them — yet the teams rarely descended into long, brute force fights in playing the game.

It reminded me of watching hockey during the Olympics — no fighting there.

It begs the question, then: Why doesn't the game get rid of fighting in its regular season?

Obviously, watching that level of aggression affects spectators whether they are at home or at the game. The fact that a fight broke out between Flames and Canucks fans at a recent game is proof enough of that. Surely that is not the message we are sharing when we enjoy the playoffs.

There is no doubt fighting has long been part of the game in North America, and has acted as a draw for the sport in attracting spectators to the game. Some argue it also helps cement the players as a team.

In 1922, the NHL, in recognizing that fighting was here to stay, introduced Rule 56 — it formally regulated fighting, or "fisticuffs" as it was called in the official NHL rulebook. Rather than ejecting players from the game, as was the practice in amateur and collegiate hockey, players were given a five-minute major penalty.

In the current NHL rulebook, the archaic reference to "fisticuffs" has been removed; fighting is now governed under Rule 46 and referees are given considerable latitude in determining what exactly constitutes a fight, and what penalties are applicable to the participants.

Today, it is all too frequent to see the fans in the stands jump to their feet cheering on the enforcer (a less common breed of player these days) for their team, as the game dissolves into gladiator-style fighting.

We have even seen the cheering continue as the combatants sometimes stagger from the ice. Some players don't come back to the ice... ever.

Concussion has become a workplace risk for the NHL and we are hearing about it more and more at amateur levels as well.

Let's not forget that even the players these days are bigger than they were 20 years ago. Reggie Fleming fought in the 1960s — he was 5-foot-10 (178 cm), 190 pounds (86 kg). The heavyweight champion of hockey that decade, John Ferguson, weighed 178 pounds (80 kg) when he played for the Montreal Canadiens. Today, many of the players are considerably bigger and their punches carry a lot more force.

Dr. Michael Cusimano is a neurosurgeon at St. Michael's Hospital, a researcher in the hospital's Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science, and a professor of neurosurgery, education and public health at the University of Toronto.

He has found and reported in the Globe and Mail that, "In Canada, ice hockey is the main cause of sports-related traumatic brain injuries, such as concussions. My own research has found there are slightly more than five concussions for every 100 NHL games. There are 60,000 to 70,000 hockey-related concussions in Canada altogether every year. (There are 570,000 players registered with Hockey Canada.)

"We also know that for young people, the risk of suffering a concussion rises as soon as body contact is allowed. In Ontario, that's in the Atom league of nine- and 10-year-olds."

But banning fighting in the NHL is a polarizing issue for Canada, and the lines are fluid depending on who is doing the talking.

An Angus Reid poll in 2013 suggested that more than-two thirds of Canadian hockey fans support banning fighting at all levels of the sport, but many current and former players don't even consider it a debate worth having.

"I hate that it's even being talked about," then Buffalo Sabres captain Steve Ott told the Associated Press after the poll came out. "It's absolutely ridiculous even the notion of fighting being taken out. What a terrible mindset." (Ott is now with the St. Louis Blues.)

Times are changing though. It used to be that teams were mostly made up of Canadian players, but today only about 52 per cent of players are Canadian; the rest are from the U.S. or international — many from jurisdictions where fighting is banned.

In the end though there is no escaping that it is about the players as people, and it is about Canada's game, hockey, not just about profits. It is about doing the right thing.

If a whole nation, in fact the global hockey-playing community, can spend two weeks battling for Olympic gold without a single on-ice fight, why can't we simply embrace that type of play throughout the sport and cheer on the playing, not the fighting?

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