Don Sanderson was a 21 year old defenseman who played for the Whitby Dunlops in Ontario, Canada. In a senior league game on December 12th 2008 in Brantford, Ontario, Don got into a fight with Corey Fulton of the Brantford Blast, lost his helmet and hit his head on the ice. Don spent the following 3 weeks in a coma and died as a result of the head injuries on January 2, 2009. His death sparked an immediate outcry to end fighting, and mandatory rule changes in helmet gear in hockey. However, his death is not the first serious result of fighting or head injuries in hockey. Confirmed deaths as a result of head injuries and fighting go way back in hockey’s history. Owen McCourt died in 1907 and Edgar Dey lost his life three years after winning the Stanley Cup in 1909. Both died as a result of head injuries. It didn’t stop there. In 1968, Bill Masterton, a defenseman in the National Hockey League’s Minnesota North Stars, died of a massive brain hemorrhage after being checked by an opposing player and falling backwards head first into the ice. As an example of Hockey’s proactive response to this tragedy, it took 11 years until it became mandatory for hockey players to wear helmets. 11 more years of players playing hockey without helmets after the death of player who hit his head on the ice! It’s amazing to think that nothing was done for 11 years. Of course, in Hockey’s constant inability to make decisions in their player’s best interest, the 1979 rule to make helmets mandatory was only enforceable to players entering the league after 1979. Anyone playing before was allowed to continue to play without a helmet.
The NHL will never mature.
It’s this constant appeasement of the NHL to an imaginary “Code” that will eventually lead to another player’s death. In fact, gruesome incidents of near death continued in the NHL in 1989 when Buffalo Sabre’s Goalie Clint Malarchuk’s jugular vein was severed by another player’s skate. A similar incident occurred on February 10, 2008 when Florida Panther’s forward Richard Zednik’s neck was accidently cut by teammate Olli Jokinen in a game against the Buffalo Sabres. In both cases, both players narrowly avoided death. In the case of Clint Malarchuk, it immediately resulted in Goalies wearing neck protectors. However, this change was more a result of players deciding for themselves instead of the NHL deciding on their behalf. Why do these events keep happening without significant philosophy and rule changes on behalf of the NHL? Well, for one reason, there is an opinion among hockey elite, and some fans, that’s it’s all a part of the game. The NHL itself is fearful that banning fighting would alienate some fans. Despite evidence to the contrary, the NHL simply refuses to be strong enough to make decisions in the best interest of its players.
There have been other sports whose history was mired in fighting and lawlessness. Both the Australian Football league and the National Football League have horrendous history of players being injured as the result of poor, or lack of, rule enforcement and fighting. However, both changed and since then, their attendance and viewership has exploded. Both went through the arguments that fans will leave the sport, and both sports proved these critics wrong.
What is this “Code”?
There is some unwritten “code” that fans and players often refer to when justifying fighting in hockey. It’s the same argument that was used for over 78 years of hockey history to support why players shouldn’t have to wear hockey helmets. It’s the same argument that stalled the mandatory rule change for 11 years after a player’s death. It’s the same argument that almost cost Clint Malarchuk and Richard Zednik their lives, and it’s the same argument that stigmatizes today’s players who wear visors to protect their eyes. Nobody can really explain this “code” other than to define it as being tough. Players today refer to this “code” as the reason why they need to police themselves and dish out their own form of justice and retribution. This form of justice is what fans of the “code” believe was Marty McSorley’s reasoning in a game in the 2000 season for crushing his stick over the head of Donald Brashear, knocking his helmet off, and sending Brashear to the ice head first. Of course, Brashear suffered a serious concussion and surely could have been just another casualty in hockey’s glorious history of stupidity. The “code” can’t really be defined, other than to say that the ends justify the means. According to this “code” if someone deserves it, then so be it.
Why are there even referees in the NHL?
With all these incidents, it begs the question, why does the NHL even bother to have referees? After all, if they allow these things to continue unabated, and allow this player’s “code” to perpetuate throughout its ranks, why bother to have anyone one the ice at all? The answer, much like the wrestling, the NHL has them there simply as figure heads. They are there to call the occasional tripping, high stick, or obstruction penalty, but as for actually policing the game and making sure nobody gets injured, well, they aren’t there for that. They simply lack the authority to stop these incidents from occurring. It’s the NHL itself that could afford them the ability to truly take control of the game and protect its players, but it refuses to do so. Of course, you would still have horrible incidents. However, if the penalty for these incidents was severe enough, it could make a difference. In other sports, players who make stupid plays that cost teams games are always held accountable by teammates and coaches. This simply isn’t the case in the NHL. The penalties aren’t severe enough to warrant changes in a player’s behavior, and with the referees simply skating around as bystanders, it seems like the NHL itself will never make the decision it needs to.
It’s unfortunate that hockey has to bear a burden of being such a goon’s sport. The beauty of its game is enticing and can truly be appreciated when the flow of the game is constant and effortless. The game itself is exiting, exhilarating and perhaps the fastest game around. Its fast flowing, quick pace and constant movement, are complimented by players like Crosby, Ovechkin and Malkin whose single purpose of putting that goal in the net, highlights some incredible and majestic moves. The excitement when they score far exceeds the boorish fights that interrupt this wonderful game. Its devoted fan base deserve more than to have it’s exciting games interrupted by life threatening fights and vicious attacks by players who are out enforcing a “code” that none of them can truly define or explain. Unfortunately, it’s the NHL who is responsible. Perhaps it will take another death, and another 11 years before something is truly done to mature this sport.