A certain amount of roughness and aggression has always been a part of the sport of hockey but in recent years, there has been some speculation that the level of violence in the game has reached an unacceptable point of intensity. With injuries of late leaving players with long standing timeouts from the game, either as the injured party or the penalized player, the league needs to take a serious look at the culture of violence and wonder what amendments can be made to minimize undue levels of aggression.
In December, the issue around discipline was brought to the forefront in a game between the Bruins and the Penguins when a couple of nasty confrontations occurred. Brad Marchand of Boston was downed by a knee to the head from Pittsburgh’s James Neal while the Pen’s Brooks Orpik delivered another hit on Louis Ericsson of the Bruins, later provoking his team’s goon Shawn Thornton to respond by beating Orpik out of consciousness, even though Orpik was clearly not interested in fighting. The injury tally at the game’s end was two concussions, a broken ankle and another less serious head injury.
Most disturbing about these outbursts of violence is primarily the conversations that were opened by fans and the media. Some of those in discussions, including journalist Joe Haggerty, defended Thornton’s brutal response while another Boston sports reporter called Orpik a coward, all raising the question of how much of the violence in the game is stirred by those who are in the stands and the media box.
It complicates the issue as to how the violence can be diminished. Is the league doing enough to monitor the situation? Is the media increasing the entertainment value of the violence and riling up the fans or are the fans egging on the players to amp up the fighting? It seems to be a vicious circle where no one can claim the full responsibility and yet no one is innocent in the situation either.
In a recent interview with NBC News, Gary Bettman discussed the future of hockey as the league is now facing a large concussion lawsuit. He says that the NHL is very conscious of the risks to players and reminds people that the league has a number of safety measures in place. These include concussion study groups, baseline testing, protocols for return to play, rule changes, equipment related changes, the Department of Player Safety which reviews and assesses each disciplinary decision that needs to be made. He feels that the league has been proactive in dealing with this issue. He says about 70 per cent of games have no fighting and that the occasional fights that do occur often release a buildup of tension between players and teams that is underlying in any competitive situation. He states that players don’t feel that they are unduly threatened in the game and that they don’t want to see a change in the rules. He also points out how far the game has come in reducing violence noting that there are no longer bench clearing brawls – the league has put an end to those.
While it may be true that players are aware of the inherent dangers and accept the risk, it is still unacceptable for players to be beaten to unconsciousness. One must wonder how this will affect the future of the game as parents question the relatively heavy financial and time investment of grooming their kids for the sport with the knowledge that they are setting them up to take on a potentially life altering risk if hockey doesn’t do something to prevent this kind of brutality soon.