Someone Else Will Have to Die

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Oct. 2) – At least the partisans of hockey violence have stopped insisting that “no one gets hurt in a fight.”

Let us be thankful.

For exactly four years and nine months, none of these pillars have been able to say that “no one dies in a hockey fight.” That happened on Jan. 2, 2009, three weeks after Don Sanderson – a Senior hockey player in Whitby, Ont. – fell and cracked his head on the ice during a scrap. Sadly; inevitably, there will be a coincidental victim in the National Hockey League. It is only a matter of time. Any person that watches the professional game can feel it. Imagine it. Expect it.

George Parros is lucky to be alive today.

Or maybe not.

Who knows what permanent damage may have been wrought upon his brain by plunging more than 6½ feet onto the Bell Centre ice in Montreal Tuesday night? Landing flush on his chin – the place boxers aim for when trying to inflict maximum devastation on an opponent. And all of it for nothing. Absolute, utter pointlessness. The effects of such trauma are no longer a bone of contention – having been proven, scientifically, after the study of professional athletes, living and dead. I thus fear for George Parros as an old man. Providing he makes it that far. 

Of course, Parros did nothing wrong on Tuesday. Somewhere in the deepest nook of a hockey mind there remains pretext and rationale for having stout players engage in fisticuffs… simply because they are stout players who can engage in fisticuffs. I can pile-drive my 70-year-old neighbor down the hall the next time she leaves to buy groceries. I’ll get in trouble for it but there could be some entertainment value if others are watching. Hell, you can pick a busy time of day to run back and forth across a main street in your city. Blindfolded. Just to give it a try. Chances are that, too, will become a spectacle. Prudent or reasonable, no. But, something to watch nonetheless.

I’m not sure where it started. Or with whom. The idea that players of equal and severely limited hockey acumen be sent onto the ice to look at one another; shrug, and fight. Would it make sense for a pair of inept boxers to enter a ring and start playing hockey? What part of the brain governs such thinking? And, if still somehow desired, why has fighting in hockey evolved from spontaneity among virtually all players to orchestration among a select few? How has that improved the sport?

I’ve heard all of the arguments. None are ruled by logic.

It is said that enforcer types dissuade opponents from taking liberties with smaller, non-aggressive players. But, enforcers don’t take such liberties. They’re never on the ice. And, most couldn’t catch the skilled opposition if they tried. Colton Orr didn’t fight George Parros in Montreal because Parros was running at Phil Kessel. And, Parros wasn’t angry at Orr for mistreating Daniel Briere. They fought for no reason whatsoever. For nothing even marginally affiliated with that night’s game. They fought because they’re supposed to. For some, that may be entertainment. But, where is the strategy? And why has such nonsense been allowed to disparage an otherwise challenging and graceful craft?

GEORGE PARROS OF MONTREAL LANDS CHIN-FIRST ON THE ICE (ABOVE) DURING SCRAP WITH COLTON ORR OF TORONTO TUESDAY NIGHT. ORR LOOKS DOWN AT HIS UNCONSCIOUS RIVAL (BELOW) BEFORE WAVING FOR MEDICAL STAFF. 

Don Cherry is the all-abiding champion of fisticuffs in hockey. He played aggressively; coached aggressively, and he talks aggressively on Saturday nights. There is nothing at all plastic about the man and that’s why so many – myself included – enjoy watching him. But, I’m forever puzzled as to why Cherry approves of fighting in the game today. It isn’t even remotely similar to that which governed his era as an American Hockey League defenseman and, later, a Jack Adams Trophy winner in the NHL. Back then, players fought to control territory; to provide one another more space to maneuver. Often it was best versus best. Or, very close to it. Always, it happened among those relevant to the game and almost always as the result of impromptu reaction.

The good teams Cherry coached in Boston from 1974 to 1979 provide example. His “fighters” – Wayne Cashman, Terry O’Reilly, Bobby Schmautz, Stan Jonathan – could also play the game; some at an advanced level. The closest Cherry had to a so-called “goon” was John Wensink, but even he scored 28 goals in 1978-79.

In my teenage years watching hockey from the south mezzanine Blues at Maple Leaf Gardens, there may not have been a more skilled fighter in the NHL than Darryl Sittler – who also happened to be local team’s best player. Sittler didn’t fight much, for he was called upon in every key situation. But, when he did… look out! As long as I live, I’ll never forget his interminable scrap with New York Islanders’ Garry Howatt at the Gardens in 1974. Sittler and Howatt pounded away for 90 seconds; went to their knees – exhausted – and fought for another minute. Irrepressible Dave (Tiger) Williams did most of the Leaf grappling back then as a member of the club’s top forward unit with Sittler and Lanny McDonald.

More recently, Calgary Flames almost won the Stanley Cup in 2004 led by their best player – and fighter – Jarome Iginla. Joffrey Lupul and Brayden Schenn briefly squared off in a spontaneous act during the Leafs-Flyers game in Philadelphia Wednesday night. If fighting is to remain in hockey, that’s how it should evolve. 

But, there’s no use trying to inject rationale into the fighting debate. Nothing will change… until someone dies. It is no longer a matter of if such a tragedy will occur. Just when. In the best interest of the sport, it will happen during a nationally televised game on both sides of the border. Maximum exposure to a death caused by aimless, sophomoric fighting between a pair of extraneous figures is about the only scenario that will open influential eyes to such clamorous absurdity.

And, I think we came close Tuesday night.

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