These are tough times for NHL fighters.
In recent months, three players known for dropping the gloves—Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak—were found dead in separate incidents that sparked debate on the physical and psychological toll fighting takes on the rugged types known as enforcers, policemen or, for some, goons.
And it brought calls from some quarters for fighting to be banned from one of the few sports that doesn’t eject players from games after they’ve traded punches with an opponent.
But it hasn’t stopped players from squaring off through the pre-season and into the regular campaign.
”I think everyone understands the risks involved with fighting, just like a boxer or an MMA guy,” said Winnipeg Jets forward Tanner Glass, who according to www.hockeyfights.com has taken 33 fighting majors in four NHL seasons, including 15 in 2009-10. ”There are risks involved just like anything else.
”You lay down and block a shot and chances are you’re going to be in pain for a week or months. It’s a calculated risk, and something I’m comfortable doing.”
”I know what I have to do,” added Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond of the Calgary Flames, who had one NHL fight and 26 in the AHL last season. ”I know what I’m good at and I’m going to keep doing what I can to help my team.”
NHL history is filled with legendary fighters from Montreal’s John Ferguson and Toronto’s Eddie Shack in the 1960s to Dave Semenko for the 1980s Edmonton Oilers or Toronto’s Tie Domi in more recent times.
In many cities, the enforcer is one of the most popular players on the team with fans, starting with George Parros of the Anaheim Ducks, the busiest NHL fighter last season with 27 bouts. That was two more than Zenon Konopka had with the New York Islanders before he signed this season with Ottawa.
But what the tough guys do for a living is under examination after Boogaard was found to have an addiction to painkillers, and Rypien had committed suicide. The circumstances of Belak’s death have not been made public, but his mother said that, like the other two, he suffered from bouts of depression.
Autopsies on former fighters’ brains, including Bob Probert who died in 2010 from a heart attack and old-time tough guy Reggie Fleming, showed severe brain damage, although the same was found with former goal-scorer Rick Martin.
None of that deters Dale Weise, a tough forward prospect claimed off waivers by the Vancouver Canucks from the Islanders.
”Not one bit,” said Weise. ”I’m just trying to earn a job here in the NHL.
”I’m hoping to stick here. If that’s what’s asked of me that’s what I will do. If I have to do that on a regular basis I have no problem, if that’s what’s going to keep me here. I have waited a long time for the opportunity to stick with a team.”
Going into play Tuesday, Hockeyfights.com had 27 fights in 68 NHL games, meaning there have been fights in 35.29 per cent of games. That’s down slightly from 37.24 per cent of games last year, but it’s early in the season.
Every team but Montreal had collected a fighting major, with Ottawa leading with four.
Still, Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s new director of player safety, said last month that the league has looked at banning fights in the past and will discuss it again.
The league has already broadened its penalties and stiffened suspensions for hits to the head in a bid to reduce the concussions that have struck several players in recent years, threatening the careers of stars like Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron.
It is argued that fighting involves deliberate hits to the head and should be banned altogether.
And opponents of fighting point to the fact that when hockey is at its best and most exciting, like in the playoffs or a major event like the Olympics, there are almost no fights.
Hockeyfights.com has the frequency of fighting in the NHL taking a big dip after the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. The players returned to a changed league that included a crackdown on obstruction fouls aimed at opening up the play and producing more scoring.
There were 789 fighting majors called league-wide in 2003-04, but only 466 when the players returned in 2005-06 and 497 the following season.
But by 2008-09 they were back up to 734 before tailing off to 645 last season.
Last season, the team that fought the most was St. Louis with 78 fighting majors, followed by Pittsburgh and Boston with 71 each, the Islanders with 68 and Anaheim with 67.
However, more and more teams have no designated fighter, including the Detroit Red Wings, who took only 13 fighting majors. Nashville had 18 and Tampa Bay 20.
”I think all those teams have guys who will fight,” added Glass. ”Maybe not as much, or their team philosophy doesn’t require it as much.
”I think that maybe the days of the full-on enforcer are a bit dated. But it’s part of the fabric of hockey to get in fights. The fans like it and we’re in the entertainment business. Being on a team that has guys that will go is always good.”
What many teams look for is a player with the will and toughness to fight when necessary who is also a good enough player to take a regular shift and not get his team into penalty trouble.
The Montreal Canadiens two years ago let go of their last enforcer, Georges Laraque, one of the NHL’s top heavyweights who has admitted he hated fighting and wanted no more to do with it.
Canadiens scoring winger Michael Cammalleri says that feeling is not uncommon.
”Almost all the guys I’ve played with in that heavyweight fighter role usually end up not really loving their identity and struggling with what their role really is and actually despise fighting, at some point in their career,” he said.
”Usually they come into the league and they’re really willing to do it and they just want to make the league and get a paycheque and they’re cool with that role and they kind of like it. And usually fairly quickly they start disliking that role and want to be much more than that and actually don’t want to fight.”
Tempers flare at times in a fast-paced sport in which big men collide frequently, but a concern is so-called staged fights, where seemingly out of the blue two tough guys square off and go.
Terry Gregson, the NHL’s director of officiating, said fighting has drifted in that direction over the decades.
”Years ago when I refereed, usually a fight was caused by someone upsetting someone,” he said. ”Now I find it difficult sometimes when I watch a game and there’s been three interference penalties and all of a sudden there’s a fight.
”There’s fighting when it’s part of the fabric of the game because it’s been that type of game, but when it’s not really even in the character of the game, it’s more difficult to accept. It’s something that’s going to be discussed, but that’s way above my situation.”
When asked what affect removing fighting would have, Gregson said with a smile: ”It would take a huge section out of our rulebook.”
But he added it may not make the officials job easier if players just found other ways to inflict pain or vent frustration, such as stickwork.
For now, the fighters will go on doing what got them to the NHL.
”There is stress, as much as there for guys who are supposed to score 50 goals, but there’s stress for the firefighter who goes in a fire,” said Letourneau-Leblond. ”There’s stress for the heart surgeon who has to open a kid’s heart.
”There’s stress everywhere. I embrace, I love what I’m doing. I’m lucky to do what I’m doing right now and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”
With files from Jim Morris, Donna Spencer and Avi Saper.