Post written by Neil Corbett


I probably don’t have to tell you about how controversial the idea of injuries in hockey has become in the last few years.  The growing concerns about the connection between fighting and depression have been caught up in this general concern about the violence of the game, and a wide variety of prominent hockey journalists have been either supporting or predicting a fighting ban and a ban on head shots. 

As with most popular sports there is a lot of resistance to the idea of change, especially when the change is perceived to affect a traditional, fundamental aspect of the game.  In the NHL, what often ruffles feathers is the idea of taking the ‘toughness’ out of hockey (or the ‘pansification’ of hockey, as the famous ex-GM Mike Milbury once opined).  Then you have people pointing out that hockey is the only major sport in the world where play stops for two guys to throw bare-knuckle haymakers at each other, and that the greatest hockey player in the world just missed a year in what is arguably his prime because he got hit in the head too much.

I want to avoid my own opinions on what ought to happen in the NHL and instead clarify the debate a little bit by isolating an important hurdle.  The fundamental issue is the need to make a subjective value judgement, but it gets lost in the attempts to present objective moral proclamations.  We have no choice but to enter the gray area and do our best. 

The elephant in the room is that the amount of violence included in any sport is based on a fairly arbitrary balance of social convention, entertainment value, and tradition.  There is no clear-cut, conclusive argument validating or invalidating any specific level of violence in any sport whose participants choose to play.  This basic point is often abused.  Yes, hockey will live on without head shots and fights.  So what?  Yes, it will lose some of its physicality.  So what?   

In this context, arguing that head shots should be banned because people are getting hurt is like arguing that no one should be allowed to climb Mount Everest because they might die.  It’s a lazy argument that ignores the critical issue of how to balance things like the rights of people to make their own choices, the level of danger involved, and the justification of social conventions.  Arguing that headshots will change the game too much is equally lazy, because the real argument must involve why the game ought to be a certain way (among other things).  The repetition of these half-built arguments gets us nowhere.

As a society, we presently accept the basic idea of athletes sacrificing their welfare for paycheques and our entertainment.  We’re okay with people dying on Mount Everest.  We also accept the frequency of certain injuries in other lines of work where the pay is kinda shitty, so I can forgive a man making a few million dollars a year in the NHL for wondering why everyone is so concerned about his safety.  Brooks Laich recently told the media: “We accept that there’s going to be dangers when we play this game. […] sometimes it feels like we’re being babysat a little too much” (from Puck Daddy, via Chuck Gormley of CSN Washington).

It’s a good question, isn’t it? Why are we so concerned about his safety?  It is not inherently inconsistent with social convention, moral standards, the tradition of the sport, or the principle of entertainment to accept that NHL hockey carries a risk of concussion, and that being a professional brawler in the NHL carries a risk of depression (assuming a causal link between these two things does in fact exist). I’m not saying it’s morally right or wrong: all I’m saying is that an argument based entirely on the premise that significant injuries are inherently unacceptable is not convincing.  If I can legally risk my life climbing Mount Everest for zero money, why can’t I risk my life playing hockey for $5 million a year?  Another valid and instructive question is, why should a sport’s policy on violence follow social conventions on violence in sports? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it’s a conversation we need to have instead of accusing supporters of head shots and fighting of being bloodthirsty troglodytes. 

On the other side of the coin, there is nothing written in stone anywhere that says a sport has to be a particular way.  Sports are a fairly arbitrary collections of rules, designed largely to create an interesting activity to both play and watch.  The rules hopefully encourage skill, athleticism*, strategy, innovation*, and ingenuity*.  It is debatable whether a rule has any fundamental value other than the value people give it.  Hockey is not static and fixed: we can add and remove things from it and the only thing that really determines whether it is still ‘hockey’ is our own judgement.

So please, don’t argue that headshots and fighting need to be taken out because they are hurting people.  Instead, try to present an argument about why the damage of head shots and fighting ought to be avoided, while the damage of slap shots and high-sticking is an acceptable evil.  Walk into the gray area, draw a line, and explain why it is where it is.  Second, don’t argue that headshots and fighting ought to be kept because removing them will change the game.  Instead, try to demonstrate why it is acceptable to remove the redline, force guys to wear helmets, change where the goalies can play the puck, and adjust the hooking/obstruction rules, but not acceptable to change the ways guys can check and the punishments for fighting.

I’m not saying that no one has addressed these issues effectively: tons of people have.  For example, Steve Kouleas, back when he was doing the excellent Hardcore Hockey Talk show, did a good job of remaining relatively neutral on the subject of fighting and instead opting to point out the inconsistencies or inadequacies of the arguments he was hearing.  Pointing out the problems in arguments is progress because you hopefully get rid of the bad ideas and isolate the good ones.  I hear a lot of people willing to draw the line and support their choice, which is good, but then I hear a handful of furious people attack the position for being a contradiction of some objective principle that does not exist.  Let’s move past that and accept the reality of what the decision is going to entail.


 * Incidentally, this is why baseball sucks.

Comments (20)

  1. This is, by far, the best article I have seen about these issues ever. Thank you for bringing out the real questions that we should be asking.

  2. Just a quick opinion on this matter while i sit and enjoy lunch… i dont think people so much care what happens too a hockey player over the course of the game, like you said, they make millions. I think the sudden urge to address this problem is the greed of fans and how they feel they may have lost one of the best players to ever play the game for a year or possibly longer if it were to happen again. I really think this matter is only being addressed because of the greed of the fan… my opinion though! Lets be honest, a third line player gets a head injury 2 years ago, the guys lucky to get mentioned on sports highlights.

  3. You cannot talk about this subject while removing the impact the NHL has as a role model. A concussion to Sidney Crosby is not a good thing for the entertainment value of the NHL, but the bigest problem is the concusions to 14, 15, 16 yr old ananymous hockey players as a public health issue.

  4. Great article. As for the NHL’s responsibility as a role model it’s minimal as far as youth hockey is concerned. That’s what Hockey Canada, USA Hockey and the various other governing bodies are for. The point that Neil has gotten across so well is that the NHL has to look at the potential costs and benefits of any given change and what effect it will have on their product and their product only. It’s up to other leagues and governing bodies to do the same for their players. We’ve seen this recently with the change in checking age and new headshot rules that are being enacted. Most of these changes are not being pushed by the NHL. It’s a response to new information that the medical and scientific community has now that wasn’t available even 5 years ago. The new information is why Crosby’s situation is being taken seriously and the debate is happening. There wasn’t nearly the collective freak-out when the league lost Lafontaine, Deadmarsh and effectively Lindros and Karyia as well just to name some of the higher profile players who’ve had their careers altered by head injuries.

  5. What a logical concept. I thought the same thing after reading Laich’s comments. “I take this risk because I consider it worth it.” That’s allowed in every walk of life.

  6. This is a fantastic article. Great way to re-frame the debate.

  7. Thanks a lot for the feedback and kind words.
    The role-model debate is interesting. It would be nice if professional athletes were great role models, but I don’t know if they ‘ought’ to be. It seems unfair to athletes to demand that they play like gentlemen while dangling a million bucks a year in front of them if they can ‘be a physical presence’. AHL versus NHL? For that pay raise, I would play however they wanted me to. If I had legal immunity I would probably murder people for 750k a year, and for a few million I would do some seriously twisted shit. I kid. Maybe. I also wonder why things like books, movies, and tv shows can glorify bad people doing bad things while sports stars are expected to be people that your kids should emulate. Does the NHL have a moral and/or social obligation to show us the way a gentleman would play hockey? They clearly do try to strike a balance: you can’t finger a guy on the ice, make a blow-job gesture, or make douche-bag remarks to the media about someone’s ex-girlfriend without getting a fine.
    Tyler: I think you’re definitely right that fans and teams alike think concussions are part of hockey when it happens to other people, and a horrible travesty of justice when it happens to their players(*coughClaudeJuliencough*), but I think Griff’s point is good too. Once we learned about concussions, how serious they can be, and how often they happen, it became a new health issue. And with Crosby missing games, it has become a quality of product issue (as BeCanucks pointed out). On that note though, I gotta say… when I look at the list of the 50 top scorers last year, I don’t find a single player that has missed a lot of games due to concussion. I am too lazy to actually check, feel free to correct me on that. The best player in the world is hurt, that is really shitty and maybe it is a justification for banning head shots, but I’m generally unconvinced by the “we’re losing the best players” argument that I often hear.

  8. I think this is an interesting re-frame of the debate. But instead of hearing rationales for creating such broad red-lines that seek to turn ice hockey into bandy with smaller nets based on the situation on the ground, I hear appeals to emotion. Let’s face it, ice hockey has never been a gentleman’s sport; the first all-star game was to riase money for Ace Bailey, whose career ended on a dirty hit from Eddie Shore. Maurice Richard missed the remainder of the 1955 season because he clubbed an opposing player twice and decked a linesman. Gordie Howe was never ashamed to throw an elbow or two to get position in the slot. Fighting was first tolerated and institutionalized in the sport as a way to govern cheap play and rough hits, there were actually MORE fights before legalization of the forward pass than afterward. Keeping this in mind I believe there is a presumption IN FAVOR of keeping the current sanctions for fighting the opponents must overcome and they have not yet. Unlike body checks to the head, players usually consent to the fight or otherwise engage in fighting words seeking a fight, they have an opportunity to defend themselves, and they can fight back.

    Headshots, especially those that intentionally target the head should be subject to new and further sanctions not because it is the proper thing to do but because there has been more scientific understanding on the health risks of a concussion. On the other hand, I believe the Olympic rule is unacceptable and does not give any discretion to the referee if and when head contact is unintentional or merely negligent. Nevertheless ruling that all head contact is a minor penalty and that intentional or reckless head contact could be a double minor or a major penalty as well as subject to supplemental discipline, there is a balance struck that seeks to protect player health but also understands that accidents and unfortunate circumstances do happen.

  9. I like to think of hockey as a game of skill in which the players are allowed to try to stop the puck carrier with body contact. I would prefer the game if intimidation were not a part of it. Let me be more precise. I would prefer the game if success or failure in the myriad plays that go into scoring goals and preventing the opponent from scoring goals was determined by the skill of the players and was not affected by their willingness to tolerate physical abuse or pain and/or the willingness to risk injury. I like the fact that body contact as a way of stopping an opponent with the puck is allowed but I don’t like that physical intimidation by larger, more aggressive, less skilled players is an effective tactic.

    Let me be clear about this. This is my preference. I’m in complete agreement with Neil that no logical argument that proves that this is simply better, is possible. I like it better. I think hockey is a great game without any intimidation and the excitement and beauty of skilled players passing shooting and stick-handling is the ideal in excitement and entertainment.

    I’ve been known to spend a fair amount of time watching MMA and boxing so I certainly enjoy some violence but in my opinion the way that the NHL allows fighting is gimmicky and to me the fighting seems gratuitous and doesn’t fit naturally into the sport.

    One more opinion. I don’t think players should be allowed to ‘finish their checks’. I believe that hitting should be allowed as a means to attempt to stop an advancing player who is carrying the puck. Once he gets rid of the puck you should not be allowed to hit him anymore. I know this is technically the rule but in reality the officials allow players to initiate contact with opponents who have given up the puck for far too long after they have given it up. Again this is my preference.

    I’m curious whether any of you have the same preference and what your reason are.

  10. TMS: One thing I wanna respond to there. I can’t disagree more with the “finishing their checks” thing. Part of what makes this a fast game, and what separates the good from great is the ability to make good decisions in very little time. That is because it’s not the checking that forces plays, it is the anticipation of being checked.

    If you take that away (little by little), then the intensity and speed of the game goes down big time. This isn’t even hypothetical, because there are examples of teams that, for whatever reason, don’t finish their checks. As a Sens fan, I had to sit through a pretty painful year last year (and likely another one just starting) of watching a team with no physical intensity (except maybe Neil, Carkner).

    You don’t have to level a guy to finish your check. You let him know that you are there and force him to make a play. If you don’t, then the next time around that player knows that there is a good chance you won’t hit him, so he takes his time. These guys watch videos, they know the teams that finish their checks and the ones that sit back. I literally watched this exact scenario unfold many times last year.

    After the trade deadline when the Sens retooled, their young guys started finishing their checks. It was glorious! We started pressuring other teams and winning games that we really had no business even being in.

    More importantly is that it isn’t just a competitive thing (i.e. team A finishes their checks so they will be better), it’s a quality of entertainment thing. Those pre-trade deadline Sens games were brutal, win or lose. After the trade deadline, the quality of entertainment. I would imagine some other fans of the bottom 10 years know what I’m talking about to.

    That’s the end of my rant. Sorry, I just get all hot and bothered when people think that finishing checks should be gone because it’s not really necessary or whatever their reasoning is. :)

  11. My reasoning is just that guys will continue toward a guy well after he has gotten rid of the puck and blast him when he has every reason to expect NOT to be hit because he already got rid of the puck. If you’re already about to hit a guy and he gets rid of the puck and you can’t stop in time then that’s ok. What you’re talking about sounds more like making an attempt to hit the puck carrier on the other team so that he knows if he hangs on to the puck too long he’s gonna get hit so he’ll rush and maybe make a bad pass. That seems to me like a different thing. I think if you get rid of the puck you’re not fair game anymore unless its really too late to hold up.

  12. fuck u son of a bitches

  13. fuck man this is a good site dont go curing mother fucker

  14. muhahahahahahahahha maw fucka

  15. amantohugandkiss

  16. u guys are all idiots and should be shot just face it maple leafs are kick ass and theyll kick u in the ass

  17. and the opiler suck my grand fathers old wrinkly balls

  18. wtf is wrong with u son of a bitches god damn mother fuckers im going to kisck in the ass u god damn motther fuvkin stupid son ova bitchin jesus

  19. I am 17 years old and a hockey play. I am a defensive enforcer. I like to fight and yes I do get hurt by banning fighting from hockey will take all the fun out of it. If it wasn’t for the greats like Robert probert, or patrick Roy(yes, he is a goalie but a hell of a fighter), even tie domi. I love the sport I play with a passion, if I’m going to die, you better believe I’m going with a hockey stick in my hands and my skates on the ice. For all those people that are like oh hockey’s to rough, it’s to dangerous, fucking grow a

  20. Pair because hockey is a mans sport, walking on the sidewalk, driving your car, eating (talking about choking) are all if a man wants to throw a punch here or there or talk some shit get over it, it’s the sport I have come to and will always love as well as every other die-hard hockey fan. If you knew how hard it was to skate 15-20mph and faster into oncoming traffic with all the energy in your body, give and take hits, fight and still play another 2 twenty minute periods (which I do) you wouldn’t be complaining, face it, hockey is and always will be the heart racing, fist throwing, trash talking, collision sport I love so get over it

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