There has been a horrible series of deaths involving NHL enforcers, those “hockey players” who fight for a living. It’s an unusual role. In most sports, athletes are too preoccupied playing the sport to punch each other in the face. Fights only happen in other sports when fury is aroused, it’s not a normative part of the game. There’s pressure to change the tone ever since, surprise surprise, new studies show colossal men speeding across the ice to smash people in the head cause lasting brain damage. The NHL can no longer put off dealing with head shots now that Crosby is out, but this brutal string of enforcer deaths forces the NHL to decide what role fighting will play in years to come.
My love and understanding of the game conflicts with any rational observation: it seems crazy that reffs idly watch grown men punch each other in the face, yet whenever Alfredson (that gutless puke) commits any of his cheap, cowardly acts of petty violence, a two minute penalty doesn’t seem punishment enough (if the reffs even call it). I want Alfredson’s face smashed in. I’m not alone in this. Far from it, tons of otherwise humane people love the barbarous aspects of hockey, and can’t imagine hockey otherwise. And while fans love it, teams need it. It’s like nuclear disarmament: all coaches agree the world would be better off without enforcers, but nobody’s about to voluntarily give up their own first. In politics, military power works better than UN sanctions: policing hockey can be done by players only, not the police.
But three deaths are hard to ignore, even for the NHL. Exactly what to do is anyone’s guess. Everyone agrees that it’s a tragedy and we’ll have to assess the game. Hard to disagree with that. But how are these deaths related? If there’s a connection, what is it? In the meantime, all we know is enforcers enter the league aware of their role, and however tough it is, nobody forces them to do it. There are lots of tough, stressful, even depressing jobs, but must don’t pay millions.
The grief and the tragedy belong to everybody, but let’s not forget that Belak took his own life. We should lose no time improving our game and making it safer, but people are responsible for their own spiritual well-being, not the NHL. Thankfully, the NHL will be under even more pressure to find the middle ground between excessive and appropriate violence.
I can’t write about Belak without saying he was one of a few NHL players I actually met. Through a connection, he was playing in a small, informal street hockey game between me and my buddies. He wore plaid pyjamas and a Kewl hockey shirt. Even for me, his lack of concern for his appearance was immense. More than casual, he looked goofy. I remember thinking his hands were so big he could black and blue my entire face with one punch. True to his reputation, he joked/chirped me for having a hairy chest (I was on the skins team). I was shocked! Soon he lived up to his other reputation as I danced around him and scored. But make no mistake about it, he was in the NHL; I noticed the net jumped back at least five feet whenever he took a casual snap shot with a tennis ball. Like a lot of people, I cheered for him more after meeting him.