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Op Eds

Concussions, Fighting, and the Hockey Code

By Garry C. Gray

On March 8, 2004, Harvard alumnus Steve Moore ’01 suffered a broken neck and a career ending concussion in what was later deemed a criminal assault during an NHL hockey game.

On that fateful day in March everything changed for him. With the game close to completion, Vancouver Canucks player Todd Bertuzzi attempted to pick a fight with Moore, then a rookie with the Colorado Avalanche. After Moore turned down the invitation and skated away, Bertuzzi skated up behind Moore, punched him in the head and then drove his face into the ice. Moore never played another game in the NHL. To this day, he suffers from post-concussion syndrome.

Moore filed a $68 million dollar lawsuit against Bertuzzi and the Vancouver Canucks organization, with the trial set to begin September 8, 2014 in a Toronto courthouse. It was anticipated that the lawsuit would spark intense and unprecedented debate on the role of fighting and concussions in hockey.

However, a couple weeks before the trial date, the long-awaited case was settled, and it seems that everything will go back to normal. But, what is normal?

The NHL still has a serious problem with player safety and concussions. Worse, most don’t seem to acknowledge that a problem exists—many continue to argue that fighting in hockey improves overall player safety.

Don Cherry—a popular hockey commentator in Canada and a former head coach of the Boston Bruins—has explained that there is a code among hockey players that is entrenched in the culture of the NHL. According to the code, it is respectable to use honorable violence (the hockey fight) to deter dishonorable hockey violence (cheap shots and dirty plays). The belief is that the fear of getting “beat-up” by the opposing team’s enforcer deters players from taking cheap shots and engaging in “dirty” plays.

It’s often suggested that Bertuzzi was originally following the code by pursuing Moore. A few weeks before the assault, in an earlier game between Colorado and Vancouver, Moore delivered a body check—deemed legal at the time—to Markus Nasland, who was Todd Bertuzzi’s linemate. Nasland suffered a concussion from the hit and missed the next three games. According to Bertuzzi, his coach allegedly told the players that they needed to make sure that Moore paid the price for injuring Nasland.

If Bertuzzi’s intent was enforcing the code, we can see how it can produce a vicious circle of hockey violence, rather than its intended effect of policing against cheap shots and dirty plays.

There were 789 hockey fights involving 340 players the same season that the Bertuzzi-Moore incident took place. Also, fights broke out in 41 percent of the games played. That’s a lot of self-policing, if proponents of the hockey fighting code are correct.

If we consider the research on concussions and brain damage associated with direct blows to the head, these statistics mean that 340 players faced serious health and safety risks while being employed by NHL hockey organizations. The deterrent effect of fighting that proponents have described is nowhere apparent.

Perhaps that is because hockey fighting is also about fan entertainment.

Simply ask fans who used to watch former enforcer Tie Domi fight. He was entertaining, especially when he fought Bob Probert, the toughest fighter in the league. In his book, Probert is famously quoted as saying “A lot of people are down on fighting in the NHL. They say it doesn’t belong in the game. But like Don Cherry says, ‘When Probert was fighting, did you ever see anyone get out of their seat and go for coffee?’”

Sadly, Bob Probert, died at the age of 45. It was later discovered that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

Hockey violence is such a huge part of fan culture that websites like www.hockeyfights.com are flourishing. This particular website allows fans to watch every fight, in every season, across 11 different hockey leagues. On April 15, 2012, Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux, two of the most talented hockey players in the world, fought each other. According to fan votes online, Crosby won that fight.

But a close review of these fights shows that there is no single logic justifying these fights. Why would Crosby (or Giroux) fight each other? They are both the superstars that “the enforcers” on their team are supposed to protect.

Crosby had been suffering from concussions throughout that season and had only been back playing for one month when he fought Giroux. Again, why would Crosby, arguably the world’s greatest hockey player, risk another concussion?

Perhaps the overriding logic is simply that fighting is an institutionalized part of the culture. While the hockey code might help to explain what a player was thinking when he entered into a fight, there is no evidence that it actually improves safety in the way that proponents of the code hypothesize. Our growing knowledge of concussions is rendering the code increasingly problematic.

It’s time for the NHL to question the continued implicit endorsement of a code that legitimizes honorable violence as a way for players to self-police each other. While the lawsuit against Bertuzzi and the Vancouver Canucks has been settled, it has only temporarily allowed the NHL to avoid having the hockey code put under a microscope.

Concussions are not going away and neither are the lawsuits.

As for Steve Moore, in 2013, he set up the Steve Moore Foundation with a mission to raise awareness on concussions in sports. In the spring of 2015, his foundation will host the First Annual SMF Concussion Conference in Toronto.

Garry C. Gray is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Victoria and a Network Fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center of Ethics at Harvard.

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