Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Stop cheering hockey violence, before player's brains turn to mush

After his death, at age 73, Reggie Fleming was found to have had chronic traumatic enchephalopathy,

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
November 30, 2011

On the second Saturday after my 15th birthday, the cover of The Canadian Magazine, which came with the weekend newspapers I had just delivered, featured the image of a half-dressed hockey player about my father’s age. His face was scarred and battered, greasy hair plastered to a sweaty and bumpy brow. The cover line read: “The agony of a punched-out bully.”

Inside, the writer Earl McRae told the story of Reggie Fleming, a Montreal guy who had gained a long hockey career despite limited skating and stickhandling skills. He occasionally put the puck in the net, but he was employed more for the damage his fists could do to an opponent’s face. Fleming was an intimidating presence, a ferocious fighter who rivals preferred to avoid. In hockey parlance, he was a policeman, a guy who maintained order through the threat of retaliatory violence should any of his more talented teammates be targeted. In the real world, he was a goon.

The article ended with McRae describing Fleming alone in the dressing room following a fight, blood pouring down his face. His hands tremble. Here’s how McRae told it: “Sometimes,’ [Fleming] says softly and haltingly, “sometimes I wish I could control myself just once. It’s ... it’s the kids. I go home and they see the cuts and bruises and —” He doesn’t finish the sentence. He lifts his hands to his face. For a long time he’s quiet and then, from behind the red swollen hands, a long, shuddering sigh. In the morning, the children will see him. He knows what they will ask. And he knows, as always, he won’t have an answer.”

Earl McRae's book
The story knocked me out. You didn’t read this stuff on the sports pages, where the world is divided into heroes and goats. Here was an athlete in all his complications — a thug, ashamed before his children, but also a man earning a paycheque as best he knew how. For a Canadian teenager, this was Shakespearean drama (and in an English I could understand on first reading).

The article, which became known as “Requiem for Reggie,” altered forever how I’d watch hockey, as a teenaged fan and, later, as a sportswriter. I loved the game for its speed, its majesty, and, yes, its violence — the spectacular and breathtaking way in which a bodycheck can change the complexion of a game. One Christmas, I got as a gift one of Don Cherry’s Rock ’Em, Sock ’Em Hockey videotapes. Liked the big hits. Cherry has produced at least 22 of those compilations. Now we know how grotesque my enjoyment has been.

Not so long ago, athletes who “had their bell rung” were told to “shake it off” and get back in the game. Now we know a concussion can have long-term consequences, perhaps even devastating ones.

Not so long ago, it was said no one got seriously hurt in hockey fights. Now we know that Reggie Fleming suffered brain damage. After he died, aged 73, two years ago, he was found to have had chronic traumatic enchephalopathy, a disease that alters behaviour and eventually leads to dementia. He paid a terrible price for those blows to the head, not the least of which was an early death.

Junior hockey returned to Victoria earlier this year, when the puck dropped for the inaugural game of the Royals. The atmosphere was electric; O Canada was sung with an operatic flourish by Mark Donnelly; and, the hockey was thrilling, as the young players exhibited tremendous skill.

In the first period, two players tussled at the blue line, dropping their gloves to throw punches. The crowd roared its approval, many leaping to their feet and punching the air.

I stayed in my seat, as did some others. Cheer a teenager as he punches another in the face? Can’t do it. Those young men were barely older than I had been when a magazine article revealed to me the ugly side of pro hockey.

Junior hockey permits fighting because the NHL permits fighting. Hockey would become even more savage without it, goes the argument. Besides, the braying crowds demand it.

Yet, they hold an Olympic hockey tournament without fighting. World championships, too. All the major sports — football, basketball, baseball, soccer — punish fighting with automatic banishment from the game. As does college hockey. As did the NHL before 1922.

The hockey world faces a crisis. Don Cherry used his bully pulpit on Hockey Night in Canada to dismiss as “pukes” the retired NHL pugilists who now question the role of goonery in hockey. Cherry apologized, sort of, weeks later, but the damage was done. He had estranged himself from some of the very players on whose bloody faces and sore knuckles he built a private fortune.

It’s time to ban fighting in hockey. Now. Before any of these teenaged players whose exploits we cheer wind up with brains of mush, like poor Reggie Fleming.


Dave said...

You know, I think I remember that article by Earl McRae. He was a terrific sports writer, agreed. You've done a real service to those of us who love the game but are becoming increasingly estranged from it because of the fighting. It should be outlawed, plain and simple. I don't think there's a place for thugs, enforcers, goons - call them what you like at any level of this sport.

Thanks for posting this.

Lindsay Kines said...

Great piece, Tom. Would love to go watch the Royals play hockey, but can't stomach the fights any longer. How are you supposed to explain to your kids why everyone is cheering two boys punching each other?

L said...

Strong arguments.

It's curious that this column isn't in the G&M. Needs broader audience. Did you try to publish it there?



Sid Tafler said...

Agree absolutely. I can't watch this style of hockey, used to be a fan, don't want to give away my age, but I've seen so some of the greats play live, guys like RR and GH.
The less-violent Olympic hockey (we won the gold!) we saw was a much faster game, better to watch.
Best of all is playing yourself--if only.