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Hockey Notes

It hurts to say, but it’s time to give up the fight

By Kevin Paul Dupont
June 5, 2011

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I am done with fighting in hockey. Time to get it gone.

It took a very long journey for me to get here, roughly a half-century, including my years as a fan prior to covering the NHL night-and-day in the late 1970s. I also realize there is no going back now after skating across the pacifist’s green line.

Granted, there is no green line in the NHL, but I offer it up here as a visual in the general context of 21st century green/sustainability.

There was no epiphany for me during the Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins’ first trip to the championship round in 21 years. No ah-hah! or gotcha! moment in the middle of the Hub’s hockey renaissance.

If someone wants to say now that I’ve finally grown up, then fine, but I can prove otherwise with any number of adolescent habits that I still hold dear, including such things as “Three Stooges,’’ “Looney Tunes,’’ and “Honeymooners’’ reruns, not to mention a fixation with Friendly’s Awful-Awfuls and Fudge Flat Tops that should have ended in the ’60s.

Most of all, I’ve evolved to this point because of the game’s culture, one that I’ve been saying and writing these last 18-24 months must change, principally because players today get injured too often, some of their brains damaged beyond repair, and fighting plays a part in that. That’s not to say all of that, but a part of that, and I now believe that taking out the fights — as much as I will miss them — is simply the easiest, most obvious first step to change the game’s runaway seek-and-destroy culture.

Too much of today’s game is about hitting to hurt, literally to break the opponent, and that’s not just a danger to players but also to the game’s image, its marketability, and I think its sustainability. To abolish fighting won’t be a cure-all, but I believe it can be key in unraveling a complicated, dangerous, and ultimately losing environment.

So I made that very case the other day to Bruins career tough guy Shawn Thornton, whom I respect as a person, a player, and a fighter (my kind of hat trick). He looked at me in dismay, and then in all sincerity, and with a good amount of animation and invective, told me I was nuts. He made his points in support of the sweet science (all in line with my lifetime position) and really couldn’t be swayed with my “culture change’’ postulate.

“I think if you take fighting out,’’ said Thornton, “you’ll see the game go to places where you’ll want it back just to stop the nonsense — more stick work, more cheap shots, just all the junk. Maybe that’s my old-school thinking, but . . .’’

Should anyone be surprised by that? Thornton is a sincere, passionate, honest guy, and he freely admits that he wouldn’t be making a decent paycheck today if he hadn’t spent roughly a decade beating up people in junior and minor pro hockey.

He is more than a pugilist at age 33 — in fact, quite a bit more than a lot of people think — but he is unwilling to surrender his stance on fighting. Not even when faced with the hard truth, as shown by the continuing Boston University study on concussions in sports, that career hockey tough guy Bob Probert suffered brain damage, likely from trading too many blows to the head in his many epic punch-ups.

The landmark BU study, centered on dissected brains harvested from deceased athletes, will have a profound impact on contact sports and their inherent risks to athletes’ brains. The study is in its infancy, but I am already convinced that it is going to be a game-changer in many sports, especially hockey and football, perhaps lacrosse.

I don’t know if that’s going to take a couple of years, a decade or longer, but as the study expands, evidence mounts, and knowledge grows, parents and the public at large will grasp just how dangerous it is for kids and adults to keep getting smacked upside the head. If I am correct, the public eventually will perceive that head contact is to sports what cigarette smoking is to general health.

“I’ll agree with you, our sport needs a culture change,’’ said Thornton. “It needs to happen and it will be difficult.

“I think a large part of that is the equipment — the big, killer shoulder pads and elbow pads. I think if everyone wore the smaller pads, like me and Rex [Mark Recchi] wear, you’d see fewer concussions and a lot fewer injuries all around.’’

All of that is good and necessary, I said to Thornton, but that won’t stop brain injuries that are the direct result of fighting. The NHL continues to peck its way through its concussion data and likely won’t make the numbers public. Recent published reports, noting the league’s extensive study, suggested that some 8 percent of the NHL’s concussions the last few years were a direct result of fighting.

“OK,’’ said Thornton, “if that’s true, then that tells me that 92 percent came from other causes, right? I say let’s work at fixing the 92 percent.

“Guys are going to get concussions, and if a guy’s got his head down, and gets popped on the chin, nothing’s going to prevent that. I really think a lot of this is that some of the equipment has to be downsized, softened maybe, and the culture will change around that.’’

And what of Probert? There is no guarantee that his brain degenerated because of fighting, but many are willing to accept the prima facie evidence that Probert’s lifetime penalty card (3,300 minutes) included too many concussions meted out by opponents’ fists delivered to his skull.

Probert, 45, died less than a year ago, succumbing to a heart attack while boating with his family in Ontario. BU’s Sports Legacy Institute announced in February that it found Probert’s brain was damaged by chronic, degenerative disease.

“I can’t think about that, the danger, and go out there and do what I do,’’ mused Thornton. “I can’t think about all the fights I’ve had, either. I just can’t go there.

“I’ve worked hard, really hard, to get here. I had to fight to get here. If I hadn’t done all that in the American League, at a time when that’s really all I did, then I’m probably still back home, working in the steel factory.’’

I’ve supported hockey fights forever, in every print and electronic platform at my disposal, and have returned countless e-mails to readers, some of them incensed educators (pre-K through college), telling them what I still believe to be true: that players enter the game, and play it, and in some cases fight within it, by their own free will. I’ve also said that fighting sells, that many fans like the fighting more than the hockey, and that, for better or worse, for decades it has helped define a sport in the United States, which, even today, essentially remains largely a non-traditional hockey market.

For a lot of people in the Lower 48, the idea lingers that paying to attend a hockey game is buying a ticket to a fight. Many of my Canadian-born pals, some in this beautiful city, think that’s funny, even ridiculous. But they come from a place where virtually every child, boy and girl, has a hockey stick placed in one hand at the same time the other is otherwise occupied by a binky. Canadians don’t just get hockey, they are hockey. They are born into it.

Now, I would say most Canadians don’t consider themselves hockey purists or elitists, or too refined or possessive about their sport to think fighting is a problem. Based on 30-plus years of conversations with friends in Canada, I can tell you many of them very much like the fights.

You might be familiar with former Boston coach/Canadian icon Don Cherry’s love of a good, honest dustup? On the whole, Canadians can probably take it or leave it, and there are probably slightly more in the “Grapes’’ category.

But hockey just has too much hurt in it now, too many broken bodies, fueled by a mentality among the players that big hits and big fights make them big players, fueled by marketing departments that show endless in-arena videos of crunching body slams and brutal bouts. To its credit, the league has done away with the bloody donnybrooks of old (I’ll confess to liking those, too).

Fighting really is, for all the talk it garners, a very tiny piece of the NHL puzzle these days. It has become a piece easy to remove, and getting rid of it is essential, I’m convinced, in dialing back the overall emphasis on seek-and-destroy and placing more on skate-pass-and-shoot.

It’s not all that bad in and of itself, but I think it serves as a crusty, barnacled anchor for violence, for danger, for broken bodies and ravaged, irreparable brains. Just time to go away.

Hockey is a great sport, and it can thrive beyond the green line. I’ve crossed, and hope you’ll come, too.

DISCIPLINARY MEASURES
More voices may be heard Ex-power forward Brendan Shanahan is the NHL’s new director of discipline, effective with the start of the 2011-12 season, but don’t be surprised if the entire method and scope of supplementary discipline isn’t changed for the seasons that follow.

Keep in mind, the current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire in September 2012, only some 15 months down the road. There have been strong suggestions from the players’ side for years that they would like a say when punishment is handed out, and it could be, in some instances, that they would recommend stiffer discipline than that meted out for years by outgoing dean Colin Campbell.

The current CBA dictates that discipline is handled solely by NHL HQ, but it’s a good bet that the players will try to bargain for a fundamental change, asking for either a half-share in deciding discipline or perhaps a one-third share if both sides could agree to be part of disciplinary tribunal.

Commissioner Gary Bettman said Campbell wanted to get out of a “thankless’’ job that he held for some 14 years. It is thankless. It is also flawed. It wouldn’t be difficult for both sides to share regularly in the process and responsibility, and perhaps call in a third party, a respected retired player, coach, or manager, to act as the overriding vote in stalemate situations.

ETC.
Different face on franchise As widely predicted, the NHL indeed returned to Winnipeg last week, the foundering Atlanta Thrashers hauled back over the line for a reported cost of $170 million, approximately one-third of which goes directly to league coffers. Ex-Bruins assistant coach Tom McVie was Winnipeg’s coach when it first entered the NHL, but it was not the same group of charges McVie led to the Avco Cup (the WHA’s Stanley Cup) in 1979. The 1980-81 NHL Jets won only nine games. McVie to the Edmonton Sun: “When we’d play and win, I’d go home and my wife would look like Cindy Crawford. And every time we’d lose, she’d look like Marc Crawford.’’

A lot of Buffalo nickels Sabres winger Drew Stafford, who looks at every game against the Bruins as a hat trick opportunity, signed a four-year, $16 million deal Friday with Buffalo. He would have become a restricted free agent as of July 1. With new owner Terry Pegula holding his wallet open, the Sabres are expected to be aggressive shoppers in the free agent market. Stafford, the 13th player chosen in the 2004 draft, was selected by the Sabres when Jim Benning, now one of Boston’s assistant GMs, led the draft for Buffalo.

Loose pucks Now that they have former Hartford Whaler Kevin Dineen to run their bench, the Panthers’ next big move is expected to be the signing of stud defenseman Erik Gudbranson, chosen third overall in last year’s draft. When the Panthers didn’t toss him top-tier entry money, the 6-foot-3-inch blue liner returned to junior hockey in Kingston (OHL), where he posted 12-22—34 in 44 games . . . For one season, Winnipeg will be placed in the Southeast Division, where the Thrashers were parked, which will mean a lot of trips to Washington, Carolina, Florida, and Tampa. They’ll shift to the Western Conference the following season, and one of the current 15 clubs there will move to the Eastern Conference. Candidates to go East: Detroit, Nashville, and Columbus . . . A non-Boston TV reporter, while interviewing Shawn Thornton, noted how he and the Bruins winger shared a common thick red beard. “Yeah, well, my mother’s from Belfast,’’ noted Thornton, “so everyone in my family’s got red beards — I mean, everyone but my mother.’’

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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