Hockey Fights: The Debate Continues

The NHL seems to be giving their referees more discretion in assessing fights. Rule 46 describes fighting as when “one player punches or attempts to punch an opponent.” This rule may imply that refs have more latitude in stopping fights before they really get started and calling minor penalties before a punch is landed. Additionally, if a player even takes off his helmet in an attempt to instigate a fight a two-minute penalty may be called.

Most of the time…

Washington Capitals fans have been tweeting today about the inconsistent application of this rule and the obvious targeting of one of our key players, Tom Wilson. According to Elliotte Friedman of 30 Thoughts, the NHL Department of Player Safety reportedly has ‘targeted’ several players to keep an eye on as potential repeat offenders. Among them is Caps right wing Wilson, who was allegedly called in to meet with Chris Pronger (a former enforcer himself) who joined the Department last year. Wilson, who spent 172 minutes in the box during the 2014/15 season and has raked up 43 minutes this year—many stemming from fighting, charging, and roughing incidents, will likely be put on notice to clean up his act or face more stringent penalties in the future. It is clear that the NHL intends to exert more control over the aggressive behavior of players in an attempt to protect their opponents from serious injury.

And with each passing game, it appears that Friedman’s article has clearly painted a target on Tom’s back as other teams egg him to fight with them and as refs jump at the chance to load up the penalties against him.

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Additionally, the new NHL concussion protocol was put in place to help with the care and healing of players. The protocol states, “…players suspected of having a concussion will be removed from the game and sent to a quiet place free from distraction… The physician will use the Sports Concussion Assessment Tool test to evaluate the player.” Previously the players would be evaluated on the bench while play was still going on, but now they must be taken somewhere quiet where not only the player can focus, but the physician has greater latitude to evaluate the player’s condition before allowing him to return to the ice. The problem though is that players seem to need this evaluation all too frequently—occasionally as the result of a fight.

We get the concern.

There have always been enforcers or “goons” in hockey—the players whose unofficial job it is to bring energy to the game by fighting. The NHL has had to grapple with two suicides in recent years, which many attribute to the long-term effects of concussions. Former St. Louis Blues enforcer Todd Ewen committed suicide in September 2015 after battling years of depression. In 2011 Derek Boogaard, another enforcer, also took his own life, again after many bouts of depression. Many believe that the repeated traumas to the head were contributing factors in these deaths. Huffington Post reports that there were another five NHL deaths related to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), believed to come from repeated head trauma.

fight_concussion     No one disputes the overall effect on players of the hard-hitting aggressive play of hockey. The main causes of concussions during a hockey game are apparent to anyone watching: violent hits and fights. However, fighting is such a huge part of hockey that many fans even joke about “going to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” The way that the players fight may be more responsible for concussions than the act of fighting alone. The head-shots and the act of wrestling another player to the ground are the biggest problems players face when it comes to concussions. When a player is knocked down to the ice, often without his helmet, there is an increased risk of him hitting his head on the ice, which in itself is painful, but the aftermath of an added concussion as a result is even worse.

There is no easy answer as players and fans alike have come to expect a physical game, including fights that often end with at least one player flat on the ice. The symptoms of a concussion can go on longer than many realize, sidelining players for months, if they are lucky, and ending some careers entirely.

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What are your thoughts on fighting in hockey? On the current application of standards? Should it stay or should it go?

Written by Brittney Marcum with contribution from Maggie Marcum

Photos by Brittney Marcum @Friendsincoldplaces (IG) and @bamitsBrittney93 (IG)