There are personal reasons that I’m averse to watching people fight each other. But the New York Times three-part series on Derek Boogaard, the former enforcer for the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers who died of an accidental overdose earlier this year, gets at the specific reasons I’ve always had such a difficult time watching men’s professional hockey, even though I like women’s hockey quite a bit:
There is no incentive to display weakness. Most enforcers do not acknowledge concussions, at least until they retire. Teams, worried that opponents will focus on sore body parts, usually disguise concussions on injury reports as something else. In Boogaard’s case, it was often “shoulder” or “back,” two chronic ailments, even when his helmet did not fit because of the knots on his head.
“I hid my concussions,” said Ryan VandenBussche, 38, a former enforcer who estimates he had at least a dozen concussions, none of them diagnosed. “I masked them with other injuries. I’m not a huge guy, by no means, but I fought all the big guys. And I certainly didn’t want to be known as being concussion prone, especially early in my career, because general managers are pretty smart and your life span in the N.H.L. wouldn’t be very long.”…
Boogaard likely had dozens of concussions before his death in May. No one knows.
Up to a certain point, I believe people have a right to do what they like with their bodies to make a living, and I understand the appeal of professional sports salaries, even on the lower end of things. But I think it has to be a genuine choice, and that players and fans have the right to know the risks involved in taking up a profession and what we support by watching it. I struggle with football, but at least the league is at least moving in the direction of treating concussions as something other than a necessary outcome of the game, whether it’s donating money for brain damage research or trying to enforce policies that give players time to recover from the injuries. And while there may be guys who hit hard, there’s a difference between landing a tough, solid tackle and taking off your helmets and gloves and fighting each other in bare-knuckle matches.
I can pay the price in football, and live with the effects, particularly as a fan with a platform to stand on top of and holler about rules and regulations and enforcement. I’ve found that I can’t live with the fights in hockey. And the NHL’s initial response to push back on the link between blows to the head and CTE, rather than thinking about curbing fights through increasing penalties or other methods, isn’t wildly attractive either. The question of whether there is, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, “an overwhelming appetite or desire to go in that direction” isn’t the only factor to consider when thinking about fights and head injury. The game as it is may work for some people. It doesn’t for me.