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Enforcer role, not fighting itself, the real problem in hockey

Fighting doesn't need to be eliminated from hockey, but the Gladiator show put on by the league's hired fists? Based on the evidence we have, there's no reason for that to continue any further.

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Derek Boogaard was in 66 fights as an NHL player. As a minor league player and a junior level player, he was in many, many more. An exact number we cannot possibly figure out, but we do know that Boogaard was punched in the head more times than any man should be in just 28 years of life.

The  New York Times' fantastic report on the life and death of Boogaard paints a picture of a life that is quite tragic. The big, dopey kid in school, Boogaard was always picked on. He learned to fight at an early age. His parents took out a second mortgage to allow him to play hockey, because it was one of the few things that made him happy.

But even there, Boogaard's NHL dreams solely rested on his fists, and he knew that if he'd ever be able to crack the pros, he'd have to do it by beating people up.

He did just that, and as a result of all those punches in the head, Boogaard lost his life. It's not necessarily a direct effect of his decision to become a hockey enforcer -- it's not like he died from a punch to the face or something -- but the line isn't difficult to draw.

Fighting huge men all the time stresses you out. It hurts getting punched in the face. Painkillers and addictions to them are in some cases inevitable, and Derek Boogaard passed away in May after a deadly mix of oxycodone and alcohol. He died as a result of his career as a hockey fighter.

Even if Boogaard had lived a lengthy life, however, it appears his job would have severely impacted the quality of that life. Boogaard suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain condition that's the result of getting hit in the head a whole lot, according to doctors.

CTE can cause depression, confusion, anxiety, memory loss. It's a form of dementia.

Gary Bettman says that there's not enough evidence to do anything about this link between CTE and fighting in hockey. There is no link, he says. Or that if there is, we don't have enough to prove that just yet.

"I think in this whole area there is probably entirely too much speculation and rumors and the like on something that is simply a tragedy," Bettman said, speaking at the conclusion of the NHL Board of Governors meeting. "With respect to what Boston University might find on CTE, they're still looking at a very limited database and in those particular cases there is no control element because you have to look at everything that went on in the person's life before you make a judgment on what a brain may show when you open it up. 

"So, I think when you look at the fact that the medical community has only been dealing with the issue of concussions in the way that they have for probably the last few decades, and if you look at our history starting in 1997 and we've been across all fronts -- whether it's the study, the working groups, baseline testing, diagnosis and return-to-play protocols, rule changes, the creation of the Department of Player Safety -- we've been doing lots and lots and we'll continue to do lots and lots. But, there are no easy answers yet. And, I think it's unfortunate if people use tragedies to jump to conclusions that probably at this stage aren't supported."

Four former enforcers have tested positive for CTE -- out of four tested -- at the Boston University lab. Bettman is right that it's a very limited database and that based solely on that, it's tough to reach conclusions. But there's another database out there that's just as frightening, if not even moreso.

Just listen to the NHL enforcers who are still alive. Todd Fedoruk, Georges Laraque, D.J. King, Brantt Myhres, Mat Sommerfeld, Ryan VandenBussche and Mitch Fritz are all featured in the Times' story. They all talk about a life in which they're kept up at night from the stress of knowing they're going to get hit in the face the next day.

There's talk about scar tissue on the hands building up to the point where it just peels off when you throw another punch. Knuckles that have literally disintegrated into nothing. Hands that can barely open, ironically only looking somewhat normal when closed into a fist. The masking and hiding of concussions -- countless concussions -- that never see actual diagnoses. Painkillers doled out like they're candy. Addictive, dangerous candy.

"If you're playing pond hockey, 6 or 7 years old, and somebody said, ‘Hey Brantt, the only way you're going to make it to the N.H.L. is fighting your way there,' you think I would have done it?" the former N.H.L. enforcer Brantt Myhres said. "No way. I would have done something else."

Now married with young children, working the family farm in Saskatchewan, Sommerfeld has had bouts of depression serious enough to warrant professional help.

"I don't know if it's worth it," he said. "It wasn't for me."

They all talk of a culture not based on hockey, but on training in boxing gyms. Scanning opposing rosters with an eye on the size of the opponents, not point totals or face off wins or plus-minus ratings. It's a game within a game that doesn't really have anything to do with the actual game. It's a Gladiator show masked as ice hockey.

We're told that enforcers are on the roster -- specifically, on the bench -- as the ever-looming presence of retribution. They skate less-than-fourth-line minutes and almost never see opposing players who aren't fourth liners based on matchup concerns and the like. As a result, enforcers aren't there to protect star players. They're never on the ice with star players.

But hey, if you mess with a skill guy, they're going to come after you and punch you in the face. That's the threat, right?

It never happens. Enforcers fight a lot, and almost every single one of those fights is against another enforcer. They're all just beating each other up every night with virtually no impact on the actual game. The real impact comes in those fists. In those crooked noses and busted eye sockets. In those brains.

Enforcers aren't the only hockey players who fight. Other players fight, too, typically in the spur of the moment when tensions boil over, or to actually make a player answer for a heavy hit on a star player. Star players even drop the mitts every once in a while when it seems necessary.

But for these players, fighting doesn't occupy thoughts on game day. It's not an every game occurrence. It's not the job. It's something that might happen while on the job, but it's not the job.

It's not frequent enough to build scar tissue on the hands or cause concussion after concussion after undiagnosed concussion. Freak accidents aside, it's almost certainly not frequent enough to lead to CTE or serious, life-altering brain injury like in the case of Boogaard or Bob Probert. It's not enough to lead directly to depression and substance abuse, like in the case of Todd Fedoruk and Boogaard and likely many others.

Fighting doesn't need to be completely eliminated from the game of hockey. It's something that's always been around and likely will always be around in some form. But the Gladiator show put on by enforcers each night, which has no quantifiable impact on the actual game, besides the total number of penalty minutes at the end of the night?

There's no place for that anymore. We have plenty of evidence here, Mr. Bettman. Don't tell us otherwise.