Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The Tragic Story Of Derek Boogaard Is Not A New One.


In fact it is a story that goes all the way back to 1922, the year that the NHL legalized 'fisticuffs' with the introduction of Rule 56.

And, as Tom Hawthorn points out, he learned the story when he was a kid. And it is a story that that came back to him this fall:

"...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 did before 1922.

The hockey world faces a crisis. Don Cherry used his bully pulpit onHockey 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.

And how does Mr. Hawthorn know about poor Reggie Fleming, an ex-NHL enforcer who's career ended in the mid-70's and who's life ended just a few years ago with trauma-induced brain damage?

Because Earl McCrae told Mr. Fleming's entire story way back when. Lucky for us, the story was reprised recently in the Ottawa Sun.

The hockey (if you can call it that) part of Reggie Fleming's story ended not in the Montreal Forum or Madison Square Garden, but instead in a dingy barn in Madison Wisconsin:

...All the wars of all the nights of the past suddenly rage through Reggie Fleming's mind and, spinning, he attacks Harris, fists up and swinging, the crowd shrieking. Fleming misses with a wild right hook. Harris slams him in the face with a right, a left, drives a right deep in to Fleming's belly. Fleming gasps, doubles over and Harris slams his head back with an uppercut. The crowd screams with delight. The other players watch. Fleming swings blindly at Harris but Harris moves in, punches him furiously in the face and head and hurls him against the boards. Harris pulls Fleming's jersey over his head, tosses him to the ice, jumps on him and flails away. Blood appears on Fleming's jersey, spreading fast like ink on a blotter. Harris doesn't let up and Fleming is helpless. It's brutal and sickening to watch and finally it's broken up. To boos and thrown debris, Fleming leaves the ice, gasping for breath, blood pouring down his battered face. He heads to the dressing room, alone, closes the door softly behind him, and sits on the bench. From far away come the crowd noises. He says nothing, takes off his jersey, throws it in a corner. He turns back, closes his eyes for a few seconds. He opens them and looks at his hands, turning them slowly. They're trembling.

"Sometimes," he says softly and haltingly, "Sometimes I wish ... 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...

All of which brings me back to the real tragedy of all this, which was encapsulated recently in a comment from former NHLer and Victoria Cougar Russ Courtnall:

“I don’t think there’s a 10-year old who grows up dreaming of beating the crap out of guys for a living. These guys were all stars at one point, but once you’re being paid, you have to do what you are told. You can become something you aren’t. What’s going on when guys know they have to go out and fight? I don’t know the effect that has.

“My older brother (Geoff) quit in major junior as a 20-year-old in Seattle because he couldn’t stand being told to go beat the (crap) out of somebody because they did something wrong to a teammate.

“I had 20 fights in my career, and I remember being scared every time. Could you imagine having to do that and that wasn’t your personality — the toll?”

The NYT series on Derek Boogaard that is causing all the most recent fuss (and rightfully so) is here....And in addition to the physical dangers of the concussive poundings, as I've written before, it's hard to even imagine the additional stress on today's enforcers given that they know that, given the way the game is now laid out, nothing is spontaneous and they always have to be ready to go full mental jacket undone in staged bouts with the other team's designated tough guy....
I grew up watching the old version of Victoria's former WHL team that Russ Courtnall later joined play in the dingy barn that was not named after a supermarket chain. It was also the place where I first learned to skate at 3 in the morning when it was really dingy because they turned half the lights off...That Victoria junior team rarely won much of anything until Paddy Ginnell came to town and enforcers were suddenly everywhere...



Norm Farrell said...

I spent years in minor hockey as a parent but also as a volunteer league official in the PCAHA. In almost 20 years, I witnessed 2,000 games or so. 90% or more of the folks involved addressed their roles with great attitudes and for most kids, the experience was worthwhile.

However, a small segment of people (parents and coaches) were more interested in developing future pro hockey players than healthy young adults. I've seen people introducing 11-year-olds to on-ice fighting techniques, teaching "proper" ways to slash the feet of opponents or how to apply a butt end to someone's mid section without being caught, etc. etc.

Worse was the claim that a kid should get back out there after his "bell was rung." Administrators tried to convince coaches about appropriate responses to injury but we kept coming up against the Don Cherry effect, where coaches knew better and Canadian kids had to "learn toughness."

Many years ago, a U of WA doctor had developed important information about brain damage in youth sport, noting the risk was particularly high during the ages of rapid growth. We've had warnings from the scientists for a very long time but we consciously chose to ignore the messages.

Don Cherry has led and inspired the deniers, not by knowledge but by arrogant certainty that they know best. We've paid attention recently to high profile deaths but there have been many more lives damaged because of unnecessary ignorance in sport management.

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

Life is risky proposition. How, and from whom, we learn how to manage those risks is a haphazard affair. Some people can take a whole lot of concussing, others can take very little. Same goes for drugs, loud noise, and a host of other things that harm, irrepairably, many others but not everybody. I read, in a Jim Bouton book if I rememher correctly, that most aspiring pro athletes would accept shortening their lives considerably for success. High risk for the hoped for high reward.

Let them go.