The Commons: ‘This is our game and we need to protect our players’

Oh, Patrice Cormier, look what ye hath wrought

“It is high time,” said Glenn Thibeault, the NDP MP for Sudbury, “this issue is taken seriously.”

Shortly thereafter he clarified just how seriously.

“Today,” he said, “we are calling on the government to establish a Royal Commission on violence in sports. We need to look at all aspects and all of the causes, from equipment to social trends, coaching and officiating. This is our game and we need to protect our players.”

Oh, Patrice Cormier, look what ye hath wrought.

At dueling podiums, Mr. Thibeault and his colleague, Thomas Mulcair, stood before a green-and-orange banner that read “Putting An End To Violence In Sports.” By “violence” they meant that which is “gratuitous, pointless and dangerous.” And by “sport,” they meant “hockey.”

“As always, many from the sports world are saying that it’s up to the leagues to discipline their players. That no one else should intervene. Well, we beg to differ,” Mr. Thibeault explained. “Lacing up a pair of skates does not give anyone a license to kill or go head-hunting.”

Indeed, that the NHL rule book does not include an explicit penalty for murder seems a shameful oversight.

Lest he be accused of hyperbole, Mr. Thibeault invoked the unimpeachable concerns of “sport moms.” “Some parents have pulled their kids from playing sports altogether,” he said. “So it is in their names that we are calling for a Royal Commission.”

Don Cherry should have much then to moan about this weekend. But if there is anything more off-putting than politicians inserting themselves into matters of professional sport, it is surely the insistence of professional sports authorities that they be insulated from outside scrutiny and Western standards of human behaviour. (“I don’t comment on their business and I don’t appreciate them commenting on ours,” Colin Campbell, the NHL’s director of operations, sniffed last week. “We take our business seriously.”) Indeed, when the Liberal government of the day very briefly entertained the thought of providing financial assistance to the league’s struggling Canadian squads some years ago, the NHL did not so much object to the intrusion as happily applaud it. “We are very appreciative,” Gary Bettman, the NHL’s commissioner, said then, “of the measures that the federal government has taken on behalf of National Hockey League teams in Canada.”

The audience here, a half dozen reporters fairly used to the ways of politicians, was initially skeptical. Well, first it was disinterested. But after a couple questions about the government’s climate change policy, then it was skeptical. “Violence has been part of hockey ever since I remember it,” observed the first scribe, raising the specter of the Broad Street Bullies, “and I’m getting really old.”

Mr. Thibeault attempted to clarify. “I think it’s important to recognize that, yes, hockey has been a violent game, but it’s starting to get out of hand. It’s the head shots that are becoming more and more of an issue.” He proceeded then to explain how the fisticuffs of Bobby Clarke’s Flyers were somehow honourable.

It was Mr. Mulcair, a demonstrative prosecutor who talks as much with his hands as his mouth, who raised the small matter of science—and what it is now telling us about the legitimate and long-term dangers of blows to the head—and the haunting figure of Reggie Fleming, a Broad Street Bully whose brain is now Exhibit A in the debate about hockey violence.

The appeal was wide-ranging and broad, invoking young people, parents, elbow pads, the medical community, law enforcement, how we teach the sport and the risk that escalating violence might one day result in death. If they intended to present a various and complicated issue in need of thorough and careful examination, they perhaps succeeded. If a Royal Commission is at all the place for such an examination is perhaps another question entirely.

It was the Star‘s Richard Brennan, in his incomparable way, who pinpointed the precise tipping point.

“With all due respect, Sudbury is known to be a rough and tumble town,” he said to Thibeault. “Are you finding, even in the North, where, you know, rough hockey has always been played, not saying bad hockey or violent hockey, but rough hockey, are you finding that people are now approaching the subject of tackling the problem of violence in sports?”

“Very much so,” Thibeault said. “I have hockey moms coming to me now and saying, ‘I don’t want want my son or daughter to play because I’m scared. I’m scared they’re going to get hit, they’re going to get injured. And that’s always there, but when you start seeing these examples on TV and you’re witnessing it. For example, one mom mentioned to me that they went to four tournaments last year, at every tournament they went to, they visited the emergency room.”

And surely if our game is losing Sudbury, it is on the verge of losing everything.