I try not to preach.
I'm eternally grateful that people think enough of my opinions to provide me a platform for them, but I really do try to use that platform the right way. I try not to preach and tell people what to think. It's not my job.
In this case, I apologize in advance if what is said comes across as exactly that. It's not meant to. I do, however, really want people to think about the issue at hand.
The NHL has a problem. It's not a problem that's going to change the sport as we know it, but it might change the way it's played, and it might eventually change the people who are called upon to play certain roles on a hockey team.
For those who haven't read the chilling New York Times series on the death of former NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard, it's worth your time to do so. The three-part series is 40 pages if you print it, and there are some scary, emotional, and simply chilling stories in those 40 pages.
We all have our opinions on fighting, and the Times isn't necessarily out to make you change your mind. Instead, it's out to make you think.
It's not the NHL's fault that Derek Boogaard died. We'll never know what path he would have walked in life, or what damage he could have done to his body even without a career as an NHL enforcer. Boston University researchers revealing that Boogaard had CTE is not shocking, though the extent to which Boogaard's brain was damaged probably is.
The scientists on the far end of the conference call told the Boogaard family that they were shocked to see so much damage in someone so young. It appeared to be spreading through his brain. Had Derek Boogaard lived, they said, his condition likely would have worsened into middle-age dementia.
The Times pieces portray a league with its head in the sand on this issue, unwilling or unable to deal with a problem it's been aware of for years. The NHL, New York Rangers, and Minnesota Wild chose not to get involved in the story, which is fine, but it leaves questions about what the league is going to do about this issue.
Speaking in California at the Board of Governors meetings, commissioner Gary Bettman didn't offer much insight.
Bettman: "Look at our history, starting in 1997, we've been all across all fronts, whether it was the working study group, baseline testing, diagnosis and return-to-play protocol, rule changes and creation of the department of player safety, we've been doing lots and lots and will continue to do lots and lots. But there are no easy answers yet. But I think it's unfortunate that people use tragedies to jump to conclusions that probably at this stage aren't supported."
While Bettman is right to talk about efforts to reduce concussions, as he did later in his media session, the league will at some point need to look at the CTE research and think long and hard about its potential impact on the sport moving forward. It seems a safe bet that Boogaard isn't the only enforcer from the last decade or so who has this kind of brain damage, though it would be irresponsible to sit here and guess at specific individuals.
After Rick Rypien died in August, I wrote on my blog about this issue. I am not a huge fan of quoting myself, but it's easier than saying the same thing over again. Apologies in advance to Penguins fans for making Matt Cooke the example. You can probably understand how easy it was to come up with his name in August.
Matt Cooke is bad enough when he knows he might have to fight a tough guy to answer for the cheap shot he threw a month prior. Now, you're telling me that the NHL will be solely responsible for policing the sport. I know that Brendan Shanahan hasn't had a chance yet to show he can do the job better than Colin Campbell (well, let's set the bar higher than "does the job better than Colin Campbell"), but I'm not of the mind to automatically trust the NHL's discipline system because Campbell is no longer running it.
Cooke isn't going to just stop playing, so either the sport has to police itself in some way, or the league has to do a (much, much) better job of policing behavior like that which Matt Cooke is sometimes guilty of. It's that simple.
... the league can't just ban it. Matt Cooke needs to be made to answer for that illegal hit he just threw, and it shouldn't be solely Brendan Shanahan's job to make sure that happens.
I still feel this way. I still feel the league can't just ban fighting. Look what Brad Marchand did to Matt Niskanen on Monday night. Are you prepared to live in a world where the only repercussions Marchand faces for that garbage come in the form of a two-minute minor penalty?
Niskanen might not punch like Boogaard, or Colton Orr, or any other prototypical NHL tough guy. But he made Marchand answer for what he did, and that's at least a start.
Take fighting out of the game, and then watch what Marchand will try.
I'm not ready for that NHL.
I am, however, ready for an NHL where guys don't just fight because they have nothing else to do. It seems like an unnecessary risk just to entertain a few people who can't find anything else enjoyable about a hockey game. If the day comes where fighting is limited to making guys answer legitimately cheap play, I think I'd be okay with that.
It would be an odd twist to take the Derek Boogaard role out of the game, at least in part as the result of how Derek Boogaard left us. While it would be odd, that doesn't make it wrong.