Over the past few years, facing more scrutiny from the media, researchers, and its former players over how it handled concussions, the National Football League began making rule changes even if it still publicly denied direct links between its sport and the long-term brain trauma caused by concussions.
There were similar discussions going on in the National Hockey League, even if the sport that is a distant fourth among North America’s major professional sports leagues faced less scrutiny for the concussions in its game than the NFL. The focus was fighting, and even if players, coaches, fans, and league executives were adamant that it should remain a standard part of the professional game, a movement was growing behind the idea of getting rid of it altogether.
Now that the NHL has a burgeoning lawsuit similar to the one that 4,500 former football players brought against the NFL, the legal, financial, and public relations threat the suit poses to the league could be enough to push the NHL to finally ban — or at least further curb — fighting in its sport.
There are no proven links between fighting and concussions and long-term brain trauma, but researchers from the Mayo Clinic suggested in October that “pathological studies indicate that fighting could lead to serious brain damage,” the New York Times reported. The Canadian Medical Association in August came out against fighting, blasting NHL owners for “tolerating and promoting violence” in the sport.
“You have grown men, standing on skates, punching each other in the head,” Dr. Michael Stuart, the chief medical officer for USA Hockey, said, according to the Times. “They frequently fall, their helmet may come off, maybe their arms are pinned and the opponent falls on top of them, then their head hits the ice. Those forces acting on the brain are alarmingly high.”
North American professional hockey is one of the only places where fighting is still sanctioned. It is banned in the European game and at the international level, including in the Olympics. The NCAA also does not allow fighting on the ice. The NHL has pushed rule changes to limit fights, and as a result, it has cut the number in half over the last two decades. In 2013, it moved even further, adopting a rule that assessed an additional penalty to players who voluntarily remove their helmets during fights. But the dangers still exist, largely because fighting is still tolerated as part of the game.
Eliminating fighting wouldn’t be an outright solution for the sport, given the relatively small number of players who fight and the improvements it has made. But it would improve on-ice safety, especially if implemented along with other rule changes the NHL has considered.
The league has already increased penalties for boarding, the practice of checking a player into the boards from behind. Any player who boards a player who is facing away from him and has his head down is now ejected and subject to fines and suspensions. And it has changed its icing rules to adopt a “hybrid icing” system that is supposed to lessen the number of high-speed races to the other end of the rink. Implementing a European-style “no-touch icing” rule, where icing is called as soon as the puck crosses the back line even without a touch, would go even further in eliminate those races.
And then there’s body checking, which has been limited or eliminated at many youth levels of the sport. Body checking is unquestionably dangerous, but it is also seen as an integral part of the sport at the professional level, meaning reforming the rules around it would be hard and unpopular, much like the NFL’s reforms to tackling and targeting rules. But as the NFL shows, hard and unpopular doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
Fighting, though, would still seem the easiest target. There may be a relatively few amount of players who fight or get hurt doing so, but the practice is hardly integral to the sport itself and there’s no question that eliminating it would make hockey safer, if only marginally so. And given that the 10 players who are suing the NHL named fighting specifically as an example of the NHL prioritizing entertainment and money over player safety, this lawsuit may be enough for the NHL to finally consider eliminating it altogether.