Thursday, September 1, 2011

Confession Of A Dinosaur

Today was going to be about saluting the OHL for a couple of the rule changes they were going to put into effect for the 2011-2012 hockey season. Then it was going to be a soapbox entry about how the hockey needed to change now after the news of Wade Belak's passing.

But before this place joins the chorus wanting to see badly needed changes to hockey then I too must confess my own sins. See I am one of the dinosaurs who needs to "see the light" and realize just how damaging fighting is to the game and life itself.

I know all too well how fighting is the supposed "best way" for men to solve their personal problems. It was how I was raised by my father which I freely admit is my lame excuse to justify my actions.

Dad's solution to my coming home crying after being bullied was to tell me to take my baseball bat to school the next morning. His message was loud and clear that the only way to stop being the victim was to stand up for myself.

I had watched dear old dad break a guy's jaw with one punch and nobody dared mess with my father. If it worked for dad then it had to work for me right?

I will not sit here and lie that I did not enjoy seeing someone else being scared as I did. And the seal of approval from dad when he talked to the boy's dean was the icing on the cake.

Funny thing how things change when you go from prey to predator; people want to be your friend, girls like you more and even better people stopped picking on you. When it came to hockey, it was the only way for a slow fat short kid with no talent to get playing time even though I lost more fights than I won.

All that mattered was I was the tough guy who people did not mess with but everyone wanted to be friends with. Yea I was so cool with the black eyes or the messed up face.

Fighting is painful and you are not allowed to show pain or else that the "tough guy"image image does not work. So you take things for the pain which on the street tend to be the wrong things to take.

I can tell you how I know all too well what Derek Boogaard went though because I have my own demons thanks to addiction. Oh yea how cool it is to punish your body because you think you have to fight the world.

So when I read about Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and now Wade Belak while you folks are having trouble understanding why, there I am going that could have been me. What might bother you is that I use those guys dying from their diseases to remind me what I could wind up as.

I also know first hand why going for help is the hardest thing for a guy to do because they are afraid of being labeled whether it is "druggie" or "psycho case." I can tell you that it is a lot easier to find denial than it is to ask for help.

Even sadder is that even after getting clean and sober that it was cooler to show off the scars as badges of honor rather than admit how stupid I was. All because I thought fighting was the way to solve problems.

It does not work and honestly we do need to have this discussion about fighting just as badly as we do head shots. It should not have taken 3 guys dying like they did but it has and we have a responibility to the kids to do whatever we can to protect them from winding up like Boogaard and Co.

And even if the cost is acknowledging my own hypocrisy of using fight videos as part of telling the prospect's story then so be it. There will no longer be any more fight videos used to describe how a prospect played.

But we do need to address fighting especially at the junior level as friend Gregg Drinnan wrote the other day:

"Sooner, rather than later, junior hockey operators are going to realize that the evidence showing the destructiveness that can be caused by blows to the head continues to mount, and that they are going to have to act to get pugilism out of the game."

"In hockey, the powers-that-be are working to get checks to the head out of the game but, at the same time, if you are playing major junior or above in North America, you are allowed to punch an opponent in the head during a fight."

Neate Sager over at Buzzing the Net offered up the best argument against fighting after he published an article which started with a call to end fighting from Dr. Robert Cantu AKA the Sports Concussion Expert

Sager wrote:

That being said, one wonders how much longer fighting can exist in the Canadian Hockey League when the medical evidence and wider public awareness of a disease such as CTE each continue to mount. An outside factor such as the class-action suit former quarterback Jim McMahon and some of his contemporaries have brought against the NFL could also force various leagues' hand. There is a chicken-and-egg element to it, wondering if it would take the NHL to act first before its longest-standing feeder system takes decisive action. But saying the NHL permits fighting is not enough of a reason to justify having it in the CHL."

How do you get a kid to stop fighting when the main hockey highlights shown on ESPN are the fights? It is a mindset programmed into the NHL game that has to change not only among players but the fans and media too.

It is not a change that is going to happen overnight but it has to start sooner than later or the number of players dying is going to increase. We are less than 9 days from the start of Traverse City and we should be getting excited about the upcoming season not having to make sense of yet another player dying.

It was interesting today as before the word of Belak's passing took over was that the OHL introduced some rule changes that one has to say is a start towards fixing the game. The first is the decision that all OHL players will wear soft cap shoulder and elbow pads for the 2011-12 season.

The old style shoulder and elbow pads were made of hard plastic which protected the player but became a weapon since it did not protect the player getting hit by one. The goal of course is to reduce head injuries but we want to see harsh standards when it comes to suspensions.

In our book the quickest way to get players to stop going for the head is to suspend his coach along with the player. When you start costing a coach 10 game's pay you will see a zero tolerance for head shots from the coaches.

The OHL also is going to put an end to goalie fights as an automatic game misconduct and minimum two game suspension will be handed out to any goalie who leaves their crease and gets into a fight. It is a start and hopefully we will see less fighting this season.

One last thing that needs to be said is make sure you tell those who mean the most to you that they do. Blink and they are gone before you get that chance so do not take for granted the hug you could have given or the hand you chould have shaken only takes a second but it can last a lifetime.


Chris said...

Sorry for the long post. Hope it makes sense:

The rate of accidental fatal drug overdoses is approximately 8 per 100,000, which means that one person out of every 12,000 or so will die of a fatal drug overdose. There are about 700 players listed on NHL rosters each year. Assuming a conservative turnover rate of 1 percent over a 10 year period, we’re talking about 1,400 players. Simply glancing at the (inexact but generally accurate) numbers should tell you there’s a problem in the NHL.

But I don’t think you can simply look at the numbers here. I think you’ve got to dig in Malcolm Gladwell style and consider other factors just as seriously. For instance: the traits that make someone a professional athlete are the same traits that put that person at risk. The feeling of indestructibility that comes with reaching the pinnacle of your sport bleed over into other aspects of your life.

I am BY NO MEANS comparing myself to a professional athlete. But I was a pretty good football player in high school and I played two years of division III ball and I gotta say: I’m lucky to be alive. I can’t count the number of times I engaged in risky (read: stupid) behavior because I merely assumed I was protected by the same angels who looked out for me on the field. I’m talking about everything from drug use (recreational, but excessive) to drunk driving to bar fighting… you know, all the bad stuff athletes do when they’re on top of the mountain, secure in the knowledge that a) they won’t get hurt and b) they won’t get in trouble. I can only imagine that these unhealthy feelings and anti-social behaviors are only multiplied in a sport like hockey, which allows – and in some cases, even encourages – actual fighting.

I’d also look deeper at the Boogard, Rypien and Belak’s lives off the ice. I don’t know much about them as people, but consider someone like Brashear who opened up about the terrible abuse and abandonment he endured as a child. If – GOD FORBID!!!! – he were to have something similar happen to him, would we blame the hockey fights? Or the upbringing? Or the abandonment? Or the depression? Or what?

For instance, one could argue in Belak’s case that the role as hockey tough guy actually helped a marginal players (I don’t mean marginal in a pejorative sense) find his identity and it wasn’t the fighting that did him in, but rather the pain and isolation that set in when it was taken away. Unnecessary caveat: I’m not a doctor. This is just statistical speculation.

Don’t get me wrong: the NHL (and the NFL, for that matter) are obligated to protect their players and both have taken steps to do just that. Some of the strategies work better than others. Occam’s Razor doesn’t work so well when you’re dealing with the complexities of human behavior… and certainly not when dealing with professional athletes (whose behavior often defies logic and common sensibility)… and especially not if there’s instability or damage present.

Necessary caveat: I don’t mean to distill these human lives down to cold statistics and pop-science. I was a HUGE Rypien fan (yes, because of the fighting) and of course a Boogaard fan (because he was a Ranger). I only knew Belak as a Ranger opponent but from what I’m hearing in the wake of his death, it seems he, too, was very well liked and respected by his peers and teammates. These are huge, immeasurable losses for their friends and families and a huge question-mark-shaped stain on the fighting in hockey.

That said, I don’t think we know nearly enough to say whether hockey fighting is a culprit or that these are three guys who thought they were invincible and screwed up or that there are other factors we don’t know about. I’d love to see a real, unbiased, exhaustive academic paper on the subject.

That’s all.

Big Fan, Jess. Thanks for introducing me to the joys of prospect hockey.


And God bless the Rypien, Boogaard and Belak families.

DAK said...

A good post.

There's nothing like a fight when the refs are blind and the crowd is worked into a fury. We have all been there (even those of us who only watch). I remember looking down from the cheap seats as Kris King and Wendel Clark beat each other bloody in the old Winnipeg Arena with 16,000 people screaming.

It's a very guilty pleasure. We all know that many a fight serves little purpose except to entertain. I suppose we should know better.