Can we please now ban fighting in hockey?

A young man dies on the ice. A father hopes for change. Why isn’t the NHL listening?

Can we please now ban fighting in hockey?

“You’ll never get rid of it entirely.”

Michael Sanderson spoke those words to practically anyone who would listen in the days following his son Donald’s death. And in a nation suffering no small amount of guilt over a senseless loss, they were received as absolution. In the depths of his grief, this man got it, the self-styled purists said. He’s played the sport. He knows fighting is embedded in it. He won’t use the death of his 21-year-old son—by universal account about the best kid you could ever meet—as a pulpit to rail against that which sets the game apart. “Other people won’t understand this,” Don Cherry told his coast-to-coast audience after attending Donald Sanderson’s memorial service in Port Perry, Ont. “But Mike is a hockey guy.”

Yet on this subject, more so than any other, we Canadians don’t listen closely. Or we hear only what we want to. So if you’ve been gathering your information on this slow-moving controversy from Coach’s Corner, it may surprise you to learn that Michael Sanderson would in fact love to see fighting eliminated from the game. You may be shocked to hear he supports measures that would suffocate the practice. Automatic ejections? “Helluva rule.” Requiring players to keep their helmets and visors on during fights? “Great. If they know they’re going to be punching plastic with their bare hands, they’ll eventually stop.”

As for that stuff about “never getting rid of it,” well, the pro-fighting advocates appear to have missed Sanderson’s point entirely. It’s part and parcel of his argument that throwing players out of games and fining them would limit fighting to blue-moon incidents, which can then be severely sanctioned. He cites football, baseball and basketball as sports whose ejection rules have made fighting look “frigging ridiculous.” “They have a fight every once in a while,” he says. “I mean, it’s going to happen. But mostly guys just don’t bother.” Oh, and one more thing: he’s no friend of Don Cherry, with whom he says he has “issues.” “He said we sat there like we were buddies [at Donald’s funeral],” Sanderson says tightly. “I’m, like, no we didn’t.”

Not buddies, not fellow travellers, not allies in a rearguard action against the bleeding hearts. If truth be known Michael Sanderson shares the view of a growing number of Canadians who sensed the ground tilting after the Jan. 2 death of Donald Sanderson, whose head struck the ice after his helmet came off during a fight. Don was no household name: he played for fun with a senior-level team in Whitby, Ont., between classes at York University. But for anyone who has talked hockey over a tray of cheap draft, it was a whispered fear come true. Someday, someone’s going to get killed, we warned ourselves. And now that someone had, it seemed hypocritical not to act. In the days following Sanderson’s death, six out of 10 respondents told a Leger/Sun Media poll they favoured banning fighting from all amateur hockey. The Ontario Hockey League, the province’s top junior circuit, meanwhile, banned players from removing their helmets to fight.

Yet when the discussion came around to the NHL—the last and most influential bastion to keep fighting alive in the game—it ran up against the same old immovability. Sure, a few progressive minds wondered aloud about whether it’s time to discuss the issue (Colin Campbell, the NHL director of hockey operations, promised to raise it next month at a meeting of general managers; Ken Holland, the GM of the Detroit Red Wings, applauded). But by and large, Holland’s peers held firm. Only two of 18 surveyed by TSN support stiffer punishment for fisticuffs, while the league-wide response to Campbell’s proposal was best articulated by Toronto’s Brian Burke. “I think that will be a very short discussion,” he said. “I am not in favour of it.”

The importance of this resistance is obvious. More than mere professionals exercising their freedom to engage in the occasional fist fight, NHL players are beacons youngsters follow into the game. But rather than change, the players, their bosses and the media commentators have circled themselves in dubious arguments for the status quo. Fighting protects talented players from cheap shots, they say. It serves as a release valve for emotions. The fans love it, and so on. There are a host of reasons to question these assumptions—starting with the quaint notion that fighting is the wrong way to resolve our differences. But like Michael Sanderson’s true feelings, they get drowned out by patriotic bluster. The time has come to shout a little louder.

That fighting is embedded in the DNA of hockey is hard to dispute. It is said that the first game played indoors under written rules ended in a fight, as players at McGill University in Montreal scuffled with members of a skating club who wanted to use the ice. That was 1875, and it followed several accounts of outdoor hockey devolving into fist fights and stick-swinging incidents in Toronto and the Maritimes.

The rationalizations came later—most notably the idea that a contact sport played at such high speeds needed fighting as an outlet for anger. “Nothing relaxes the boys like a good fight,” said Francis “King” Clancy, the legendary Toronto Maple Leaf of the 1930s, in a flash of Irish bravura. Clarence Campbell, the NHL’s long-time president, popularized the “safety-valve” trope, warning that, without fighting, “the players would no doubt develop more subtle forms of viciousness.”

These notions took hold, and were allowed to calcify despite an abundance of contradictory evidence. Study after study has demonstrated that violence leads only to more violence, notes Stacy Lorenz, a University of Alberta professor who has studied the history of violence in hockey, while some of the most traumatic moments in the game were either sparked by fighting, or occurred despite its prevalence. Maurice Richard resorted to his fists again and again in response to the slashes and ethnic slurs he endured as a Montreal Canadien. Yet his combativeness did nothing to discourage—and arguably spurred—the opponent who cut his face with a high stick, provoking the epic meltdown that led to the Richard riot of 1955 (a wild-eyed Richard broke his stick across the shoulder of his attacker, Hal Laycoe, and punched a linesman in an attempt to get at the Boston Bruin).

Meanwhile, the cheap shots went on, reaching their apogee in the 1970s, when the Philadelphia Flyers were the Broad Street Bullies and fighting was commonplace. The league was forced to crack down on bench-clearing brawls. But pugilism remained, and in today’s NHL, a perceived cheap shot can lead to endless cycles of retribution, with players waiting several games to exact revenge on an opponent they believe has taken liberties. The idea, says Rob Ray, a former tough guy with the Buffalo Sabres, is to ensure talented players aren’t injured by bigger, tougher opponents. “You can use Wayne Gretzky as an example,” says Ray, who now works as a TV analyst. “He always had somebody looking over his shoulder, protecting him, allowing him to play the game the way he could.”

Trouble is, many cheap shots are committed by practised fighters—no doubt because they are unfazed by the thought of dropping the gloves should they need to. Egregious examples include the forearm shiver Toronto’s designated fighter, Tie Domi, laid during the 2001 playoffs on Scott Niedermayer, an all-star defenceman then with the New Jersey Devils; or Dale Hunter’s blindside elbow on Pierre Turgeon during a 1993 playoff game between the Washington Capitals and Turgeon’s New York Islanders. A more recent spate of attacks suggests the problem has deepened, as small-time pugilists take liberties with players who don’t typically fight. In October 2007, Jesse Boulerice, a dime-a-dozen fighter with the Flyers, levelled Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks with a cross-check to the face. That play came just two weeks after Steve Downie, another minor tough with the Flyers, concussed the normally peaceable Dean McAmmond with a flying elbow, putting the Ottawa Senator out of action for 10 games. This season, Ryan Hollweg, a spare-part agitator with Toronto, was suspended for three games following his third misconduct in nine months for boarding—essentially, hitting from behind. The Leafs forward has been branded a coward for those hits. But he is no shirker in the fisticuffs department, fighting 19 times in the two seasons leading up to his suspension.

So the theory that fighting limits dirty play doesn’t hold water. Nor does the idea that it protects ultra-talented players from the indignities of a rough game. In the last couple of weeks, NHL fans have been treated to the spectacle of superstars Sidney Crosby and Alexander Semin throwing punches after opponents crossed the line (Semin, who can be seen on YouTube, looks rather like an angry toddler). You can’t, evidently, have a thug riding shotgun all the time.

Still, the pro-fight lobby holds to its catechism, insisting the mischief would abate if enforcers were given more latitude. Their latest target is the so-called “instigator rule,” which they say emboldens cheap-shot artists by giving extra penalty minutes to players who pick fights to even the score. That would be a lot more persuasive if officials actually used the instigator rule. Since it was introduced in 1992, the number of infractions has steadily dwindled to about 50 per year, out of 1,230 games. Meantime, fighting has been booming following a post-lockout low of 466 in 2005-’06. At the current rate, 2008-’09 will end with 789 fights, or 0.64 fights per game, according to the website It is possible, as the foregoing numbers suggest, that 94 per cent of those fights will have been started by no one. But it’s a lot more likely that the league is trapped in a vicious cycle, where fighters are doing the cheap shots, the cheap shots are leading to more fights, and the officials have given up trying to stop them.

It is tempting under the circumstances to throw up one’s hands. “These are professionals, and they are adults,” notes Dave Morissette, a former enforcer who now provides NHL analysis on RDS in Quebec. But even Morissette, who fought relentlessly in the minors to get his shot at the NHL (11 games with Montreal), was shaken by the death of Sanderson—a player who like so many Canadian boys grew up idolizing NHLers. For Morissette and for others, qualms about fighting have always revolved around these younger players, whom he believes should be protected from the fighting culture until they are ready to turn professional. “I think they should get it out of junior hockey completely,” he says. “Let those players play hockey.”

Morissette’s reasons are rooted in psychology—the kind learned by one who must prepare mentally for a nightly maelstrom of fists. “In my first year of junior, I wanted to quit by Christmas,” he admits. “You don’t sleep at night, because you’re not thinking about hockey anymore. You’re just thinking about your fights. You’re 16 or 17, there are 2,000 people at the arena. There’s your teammates and your girlfriend and your dad in the stands and you really don’t want to get your ass kicked. So are you thinking about scoring goals? No. You’re thinking about that fight.”

The syndrome can carry a player to frightening depths. Morissette made waves four years ago by admitting in a book that he had taken steroids in order to match strength against the muscle-bound giants entering the league. Today he wonders what fury these behemoths will unload on their future victims. The same fears were on Ken Holland’s mind when the Detroit GM weighed in on the debate. “Some of these guys are six foot seven, six foot eight,” he told the Globe and Mail. “They weigh 245 or 250 lb. In the old days they were six foot one, 185 lb.”

Indeed, the dangers are plain to anyone who cares to look. Thirteen days after Sanderson’s death, Daniel Carcillo, a young forward with the Phoenix Coyotes, thumped his bare head against the ice in a fight with Vancouver’s Rob Davison, who stands six foot three and weighs 220 lb. “When I saw that,” says Michael Sanderson, “it sent a chill through me.” Carcillo escaped serious injury, but the following week, a minor-league forward playing for the Philadelphia Phantoms, the Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate, suffered a seizure after falling helmetless into the boards during a fight, his legs shaking uncontrollably and his eyes rolling back in his head. He was kept overnight in hospital, but appeared to be recovering.

None of this appears to have fazed the NHL brain trust. “I don’t think there is any appetite to abolish fighting from the game,” commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters this week during All-Star festivities in Montreal. “I think our fans enjoy this aspect of the game.” Still, the league might take a harder look at fighting’s effect on its product. Far from encouraging rugged play, fighting and its concomitant urge for retribution have turned even clean hits into violations of the NHL’s supposed “code of honour.” A mid-ice hip check that 10 years ago would have been considered part of the game now induces a dreary round of shoving and scuffling. Star players who fans pay dearly to see are pulling up on their checks so as to avoid these scenes, while the Hollwegs and Downies roam around unchecked. A case can be made that fighting is actually making the game less tough.

The eye-for-an-eye mentality has also led to blowout incidents that have bruised the game’s reputation among prospective fans. Marty McSorly, after all, was trying to goad Donald Brashear into a fight in February 2000 when he swung a stick at the Vancouver Canuck’s head, resulting in a high-profile assault prosecution. Todd Bertuzzi’s infamous attack on Steve Moore in 2004 was payback for a hit on Markus Naslund, the Canucks captain, in a previous game between Vancouver and the Colorado Avalanche. That Moore had already answered the proverbial bell by fighting with Matt Cooke made the attack all the harder to fathom. If fights are any kind of safety valve, why do these dramas drag on?

The league’s answer to such questions is as familiar as it is blithe. “We believe we’re adequately and appropriately policing our own game,” Bettman said in the wake of the Bertuzzi incident. What the commissioner fails to grasp is that the rest of the world does not share its view of hockey as a self-governing kingdom. “Violence in sports is father to violence in everyday life,” said Judge Sidney Harris of the Ontario provincial court in 1988, setting down a precept the justice system has upheld ever since. The public appears to agree. In poll after poll, Canadians say they look upon hockey as a means to teach values like respect, discipline and grace under pressure. Fully 54 per cent of respondents to a Harris-Decima survey conducted last week said they oppose fighting in the NHL.

Here lie the moral contradictions the league cannot—will not—address. We teach our children that punching another person is no way to resolve frustration. Why is it thought reasonable in hockey? More to the point, is fighting not antithetical to the concept of athletic competition? What are rules and officials for, if not to prevent players from taking justice into their own hands? Why should they serve this purpose in other contact sports but not hockey? Football, to name just one, is a physical game, featuring 300-lb. men throwing themselves at each other at high speed. But head shots, blocks in the back, pushing your hands into an opponent’s face are deemed penalties. And if two players finally do lose their cool, the referees don’t stand back while they remove their helmets and start swinging. Perhaps Wayne Gretzky summed it up best: “Hockey is that only team sport in the world that actually encourages fighting. I have no idea why we let it go on.”

It’s not as though getting rid of it would be difficult. Automatic game ejections followed by escalating fines and suspensions would likely do the trick—not eliminating fisticuffs altogether but, as Sanderson says, making them ridiculous. Minor hockey associations did it long ago, reducing fighting to a few pathetic parodies in which players cuff each others’ face cages, gloves still on. As for the canard that old habits die hard, one need only consider the NHL’s own example: by near-universal opinion, the league’s crackdown on obstruction and stick offences has been a grand success. Like clockwork, the lower leagues have fallen into line, taking their cues from the pros and juniors. It was a clear demonstration, if any was needed, that a few rule amendments and some perseverance on the part of officials can change a sport for the good.

Sanderson, for one, doubts the hockey would suffer one bit if fighting were gone. He points to the Stanley Cup playoffs and world junior championship as series that feature next to no fisticuffs, yet offer some of the game’s most punishing physical play. “It’s open, it’s fast, and the referees let them play,” he says. “We watch because it’s exciting. We don’t watch it for the fights.” He’s been speaking these truths insistently but quietly, so as to avoid heaping guilt on Cory Fulton, the Brantford, Ont., player who was fighting Don Sanderson when he went down. “There’s another person to think about here,” he says. “Being a dad, and trying to be sensitive to both sides, it’s hard to speak out.”

But make no mistake: should Donald Sanderson’s death prove the turning point in this ancient debate, that would be just fine with his father. “At least we could say something good came out of it,” Michael says. “Right now, nothing’s good for me. I don’t have my buddy. I can’t see him, I can’t talk to him. There’s gotta be a reason for that. You can’t tell me the Lord took him for nothing, because he was just too good of a kid.”

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