‘They are trading money for brain cells’

The heartbreaking death of troubled NHL tough guy Derek Boogaard, the subject of a three-part series that concluded Tuesday in The New York Times, reveals how the league isn’t terribly eager to talk about his damaged brain that shocked researchers who received it on request from his family.

And it certainly hasn’t quelled the appetite some fans will always have for fighting, which remains a strong part of the game. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, in fact, really skates around the issue:

“If you polled our fans, probably more would say they think it’s a part of the game and should be retained.

“The issue is, do we increase the penalty?. Because it is penalized now. And there doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming appetite or desire to go in that direction at this point in time.”

What’s raised more concerns are the recent suspected suicides of NHL enforcers Rick Rypien and Wade Belak and the nearly year-long absence of Sidney Crosby, the man on whom the NHL is placing Gretzky-like hopes.

On NPR last week, Stefan Fatsis said Crosby’s layoff with concussion-like symptoms is responsible for beefed-up penalties for hits to the head.

Yet Branch reports that Boogaard’s father has been met with only silence by the New York Rangers when he asked about his son’s medical treatment by the team. Neither would the Minnesota Wild, Boogaard’s former team, detail his treatment there.

The headline quote comes from the son of one of the Boston researchers who was unnerved by the cheering during a fight at a Bruins’ game he attended. Joe O’Connor of The National Post in Canada writes that tougher anti-fighting measures won’t help. (His colleague Jonathan Kay thinks very differently.)

Damien Cox of The Toronto Star doubts much will change, but accuses Bettman of an “effective, if rather cynical, game plan” since for now all the research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is being done “on the brain of a dead person:”

“So if Bettman is arguing that more data is needed — 1,000 dead NHL players? — he can stretch this argument out for years. Decades.”

NHL union chief Don Fehr was rattled by the report, and a Canadian brain injury expert is calling for an end to the role of enforcerin the NHL. But players reflect the ambivalence, including Mark Stuart of the Winnipeg Jets:

“This is their job and this is what they love doing. The violent part of it is unfortunate and the injuries are very, very unfortunate, but it’s up to the individual and they’re going to do whatever they can to continue to play.”

I’m admittedly not a very close follower of the NHL. I live in a city that has lost not just one, but two franchises to Canadian teams, so it’s a bitter pill. And I’ll probably never understand why fighting has been, and probably will be, an integral part of the game.

What I do see is that NHL players take an absolute beating, probably more so than football, because of the number of games involved. The NFL is only now starting to come to grips with its concussion issue in the wake of the suicide of retired player Dave Duerson. Even then, there’s been harsh reaction to doing anything that would change the violent nature of the game. For then it would not be football.

The NHL is going through a similar phrase. But if Crosby takes one more shot, will the continued inaction be worth it? Eric Lindros battled multiple concussions and retired at the age of 34, but Crosby is only 24 now.

This isn’t a rhetorical question, and I realize there probably are no clear answers now. The sport of hockey and the topic of sports injuries are not familiar terrain for me. And I realize that Boogaard had plenty other problems that contributed to his death.

But I’m seeking answers here, especially from from hockey fans who can help enlighten me about the fascination with fighting and whether the game would be the same without it.

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 10, 2011 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    Hi Wendy,

    I composed a lengthy reply to your post and put it on my blog. Everyone is welcome to check it out here:

    On Fighting in the NHL: A Response to Wendy Parker: http://wp.me/p1LjCJ-57

    Thanks!