On Sept. 2, 2011, days after the suicide death of former NHL enforcer Wade Belak, then-NHL head of player safety Brendan Shanahan sent an email to his bosses with a simple message: the role of hockey's enforcer has got to go. He argued that the job had become too specialized and yes, that at the end of the day, the suicide of a former enforcer "simply goes back to concussions and brain injuries."
Here's the email he sent to commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly and executive vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell in its entirety:
"We all know that we've talked about a time where we impose stiffer penalties for fighting, so I wouldn't see this as reactionary but more opportunistic that the timing is right to get the support to finally say enough.
"Regardless of what the specific reasons are that drove Wade to do this, I think it simply goes back to concussions and brain injuries. [The enforcer role] is also becoming more specialized and more pressurized.
"Some former enforcers have reached out to me and offered their support to us. They're all scared.
"Fighting (like slashing) is NOT legal. There is a penalty. Unlike fighting however, teams don't employ "slashers" for that simple role. We could work out the details but maybe it's time to propose increases [to] the penalty for fighting. If you fight, you get kicked out.
"It's only a matter of time before the CHL and other feeder leagues do it. Let's be first. I believe it's the right thing to do."
The email was made public alongside nearly 300 other internal NHL documents as part of an ongoing lawsuit brought by former NHL players against the league. The players in that suit allege that the league knew more than it told them regarding the link between hockey and concussions, and that there was more the league could have done to educate and prevent many of the neurological problems they say they deal with today. The documents were first published by the Globe & Mail.
One day after Shanahan sent that email, on Sept. 3, he circled back with the group -- leaving Campbell off the thread this time -- to share a story written in the Globe that morning. Bettman responded, both noting the difficulty the league has in trying to curb fighting while also sharing that he doesn't believe fighting causes enforcers to die.
Do you remember what happened when we tried to eliminate the staged fights? The "fighters" objected it and so did the [NHL Players' Association]. Eliminating fighting would mean eliminating the jobs of the "fighters", meaning that these guys would not have NHL careers.
An interesting question is whether being an NHL fighter does this to you (I don't believe so) or whether a certain type of person (who wouldn't otherwise be skilled enough to be an NHL player) gravitates to this job (I believe more likely).
Daly pushed back a little:
I tend to think its a little bit of both. Fighting raises the incidence of head injuries/concussions, which raises the incidence of depression onset, which raises the incidence of personal tragedies.
It's a clear disagreement. Daly and Shanahan seem to believe that there's a link between concussions and so-called "personal tragedies," while Bettman is skeptical to draw that link. Here's the commissioner in response:
I believe the fighting and possible concussions could aggravate a condition, but if you think about the tragedies there were probably certain predispositions. Again, though, the bigger issue is whether the [NHLPA] would consent to in effect eliminate a certain type of "role" and player. And, if they don't, we might try to do it anyway and take the "fight" (pun intended).
Shanahan chimed in 18 minutes later:
I think you're right. The previous regime at the [NHLPA] definitely would fight it. But I thought their current position on illegal checks to the head is that it should encompass ALL contact. If we keep this simply about concussions and brain injuries then how can they argue against it.
This is not the same role as it was in the 80's and 90's. Fighters used to aspire to become regular players. Train and practice to move from 4th line to 3rd. Now they train and practice becoming more fearsome fighters.
They used to take alcohol or cocaine to cope. (Kordic)
Now they take pills. Pills to sleep. Pills to wake up. Pills to ease pain. Pills to amp up. Getting them online.
Bettman closed the email thread with this:
Agree, but remember you are about to try to take a certain type of player (or aspiring player) and tell him his ability to earn more money than he could probably make doing anything else is over! The current head of of union spent a decade in baseball protecting steroid users over what was best for the vast majority of his players and the game.
Dramatic differences of opinion on fighting, hitting within NHL
It's clear that among these three men at the top of the hockey food chain, there is at least some appetite to curtail fighting in the NHL. It's evident that they all believe it's a problem in some way. But there are disagreements on if change is something they are capable of pushing through, and they disagree on the specific impacts that fighting has on hockey's enforcers.
It's kind of easy to understand why Bettman is the chief skeptic here, to be honest. His job as commissioner is, essentially, to be the mouthpiece for 30 team owners, and the unsealed emails show just how different opinions are around the league regarding fighting and head injuries.
If he comes out in favor of completely banning fighting, and completely banning all contact with the head, he'll piss off half of his constituents. If he comes short of calling for that, he'll piss off the other half. It's not exactly an enviable position.
For example, on one side of the token we have Nashville Predators owner Tom Cigarran. On Oct. 30, 2011, he sent an email to Predators general manager David Poile, asking for an update on an injury to forward Mike Fisher. Poile responded that there was a concussion on the play and that the offender, Francois Beauchemin, was not suspended. Shanahan's Department of Player Safety deemed it was a clean hit.
Cigarran was not happy. He sent this to Bettman:
As I have tried to get across, ANY hit to the head MUST be a Major penalty and result in a suspension. We would be the last league to take this position so this is not a RADICAL concept. The cost of our delay is huge in financial terms and In terms of damage to player careers as well.
I fully support Brendan's aggressive enforcement of player safety regs. Last night's hit on Mike Fisher according to our latest rules might have been Legal. This just demonstrates the need to Change the rules.
The "it will change the game" or "we will have our players wearing figure skates" stories show the thinking of the old timers. Our incremental approach to change to mollify them has gone on too long. I intend to bring this up at every owners meeting until the changes are made. Enough is enough.
We have a rule against head "hits" but not head "contact" in conjunction with a "full body check." Let's discuss tomorrow.
It seems that Brian Burke, meanwhile, is one of the "old timers" that Cigarran was talking about.
Burke was in the news on the subject in January 2012, when in his then-role as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he placed enforcer Colton Orr on waivers. He told the Toronto Star: "A player with the character of Colton Orr, when he can’t contribute to this league, then I’m not sure if I like where we’re going with this."
Bettman responded to that in an email with other top NHL executives:
we haven't changed the rules on fighting. what brendan is doing has nothing to do with fighting. hitting is only down and those are the hits we don't want. half the world wants fighting eliminated and the other half wants i'd say it's insane!
In an email thread several months earlier -- dated Sept. 30, 2011, while fighting was still a hot topic in the media a month after the death of Belak and four months after the death of enforcer Derek Boogaard -- Burke was asked by Star reporter Kevin McGran to comment on something Shanahan said on TV about fighting.
Shanahan had taken his feelings against fighting public, albeit in a relatively tame way, saying:
"We have to look at fighting. Now what the final decision is, I can't tell you now, that's obviously something we're going to have to look at. But there is no way that we would ever deny that it's not something we're looking at closely."
This did not make Burke happy. He took it right to Shanahan over email:
Shanny, I am not commenting on this. May ask who "we" is? This is news to me. Are we that worried about being politically correct that we have to say we're looking at it, even if the managers are not? Please advise.
Shanahan tried to calm Burke down, saying that "they only showed a portion of what I said." But the cat was out of the bag. Shanahan sent to over to Bettman, and the commissioner responded:
i think we went too far. this is sensitive territory and we need to be very careful.
Colin Campbell's vulgar, complicated position on fighting
While Bettman, Daly and Shanahan all seem to share at least some belief that fighting and hits to the head are things that need to be fixed in some way, the feeling of Colin Campbell is a little less clear. Campbell, the former head of player safety and current executive vice president of hockey operations, seems unhinged and is downright vulgar at times on these topics.
There was the 2007 conversation about a Canadian Press story in which former NHL enforcer Todd Fedoruk said hockey fighters should be able to wear gloves.
"You can tell this guy had blows to the head," Campbell replied.
There was the time in 2013 when Gerry Towend, the head athletic trainer for the Ottawa Senators and the representative for the league's 30 team trainers on the NHL's Concussion Working Group, sent an email expressing the concerns of his cohorts. For some reason, Campbell had strong feelings and decided email was the best avenue to express those feelings.
"This guy is an absolute freaking idiot!" Campbell wrote.
Then there's the victim blaming. Commenting in an email reply to Bettman in 2008, Campbell wrote this of a hit between Montreal's Tom Kotsopoulous and Toronto's Mike Van Ryn (emphasis ours, typos his):
We had a hit from behind last on Toronto (Kotsoplous on Van Ryn). Kotsopoulous received a 5 min penalty and kicked out ofgame.. Toronto scored. Van Ryan is a woos and soft but he ended up with a broken nose and broken hand. He should be penalized and suspended for putting himself in a bad position. We are having a hearing tomorrow for Kotspoulos.
Yet while he's saying people deserve broken noses, and calling athletic trainers idiots, and joking about enforcers who suffered repeated brain trauma, even Campbell seems to have at least some belief that fighting as it currently stands in the NHL needs to change.
In a 2008 conversation with TSN reporter Bob McKenzie about the death of amateur player Don Sanderson after an on-ice fall during a fight, Campbell said:
It is certainly scary ... stand back a try and knock the guy out so he falls down on something as hard as concrete ... and to think they throw off their helmets lots of times!!! I guess if I had real balls Iwould go public and go hard but I won't.
And a year later, in a different conversation with McKenzie, Campbell says this:
Question for you .... I am thinking of coming out and saying it's time .... to get rid of fighting ... or at least take major steps to reduce it. I will need my bosse's ok but thinking strongly of it. I hated fighting ... had to do it in the 70's but it is stupid. I don't remember one fight on pond hockey or ball hockey. Will I get fried? Will it work ... I mean the game in the NHL without the great equalizer ie fighting? Like .... now .... [Matt] Cooke can run whoever he wants and there is no pressure on him to fight like there was in the 70's or 80's! Think about it.
Campbell's opinion seems fluid in some ways on the topic, even despite his often vulgar and insensitive tone when discussing it. And perhaps that's a good glimpse into the complexity of this issue within the National Hockey League.
There are those like Shanahan and Cigarran, the Predators owner, who are progressive and believe the time is now -- or five years ago -- to push for real change when it comes to fighting, hits to the head, concussions and the like. There are those like Burke who take more of a hard line. There are those like Campbell who seem to wrestle with the new reality -- that fighting is dangerous and change needs to be made -- against what they've known and how they've felt about it since they first played the game 50 years ago.
And then there's Bettman, who has to try to pull all of these perspectives together into something that makes sense. One might argue that Bettman should know better, and that he should use his influence and status as commissioner to take more of a progressive line alongside what Shanahan and Daly had been saying about fighting.
But it's evident that until guys like Campbell are no longer wielding this kind of power in the NHL's front office, or among the league's 30 teams, or in the ranks of the NHLPA, Bettman feels powerless to do much about it.
Perhaps that's why there has been not a stricter ban on fighting, like Shanahan asked for in 2011, or why head hits -- like this one from a game in January -- are still allowed under the rules unless the head is picked and targeted. Perhaps that's why Shanahan works for the Maple Leafs, and not the league office, today.