Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Academics pressing for end to ice hockey fights after Boogaard evidence links punches to brain injuries

Ask anyone new to come along to an ice hockey game with you and the chances are they will pipe back with the same question nine times out of ten: will there be fighting?

So synonymous has the sport become with the on-ice brawling that for many it is impossible to have one without the other. A hockey game without anyone dropping the gloves? The sporting equivalent of Laurel without Hardy, or fish without chips.

Much-loved funnymay Rodney Dangerfield summed it up many moons ago with his now infamous line, "I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out ,". In fact, scapping is considered so key to the sport that some players have made careers out of little else than a enthusiasm for stepping toe to toe with opponents.

Once such player was Derek Boogaard. Standing a mammoth 6ft 8inches tall and weighing a gargantuan 260 plus pounds, Boogaard acted as a feared enforced for both the Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers during his six years in the NHL.

During that time he scored just three goals, but spent almost 600 minutes in the sin bin. Those stats alone should tell any observer all they need to know about Boogaard's game.

More than any particular skill with the stick, Boogaard earned his cash hitting and being hit. A lot.

Nevertheless, it was still a shock to the sport when he was found dead in May last year. He was just 28 and should have been entering his prime as a player.

Having struggled with injuries and an addiction to painkillers, Boogaard's body was donated to medical science - with a team at Boston University embarking on a research paper assessing the affect of sporting impacts on the brain.

The team's study showed Boogaard was nursing the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) - an illness not far removed from Alzheimer’s but which is unable to be diagnosed until after death.

Among the symptoms are mood swings, memory loss and, perhaps most tragically in the case of Boogaard, addictiveness.

Academics at Boston said there was significant evidence of CTE in Boogaard's brain - and the brains of three other former NHL players, three of whom were regular punch throwers.

Now the university's findings are leading to calls for the sport's governing body to ban fighting completely, or at the very least impost far stiffer penalties.

Writing in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, its editor-in-chief Dr Rajendra Kale, said evidence was mounting for a sport-wide ban.

Dr Kale called hockey fighting "an aberration that we all need to get rid of," before adding, "You don't have to be a great expert in neurology to understand what's going on. The simple, plain message is that the brain does not like being hit, and if you hit it repeatedly it will get damaged. It's a delicate organ."

His comments have been met with the usual barrage of 'fighting is part of game' arguments, with some players themselves no doubt keen to protect a livelihood based on their prowess in one-on-one confrontations. His response is a blunt rhetorical question to the game's current crop of hard men: "Do you want to be rich, famous and demented and dead at 40?"

For things to change however, Dr Kale and his colleagues will need to convince the upper echelons of the NHL hierarchy. Without the backing of the rule makers, fighting is unlikely to be confined to the sporting scrap heap.

One expert who does have the ear of the league's commissioner Gary Bettman is Dr Ruben Echemendia. However, the director of the concussion working group run jointly by the NHL and the hockey players union disputes the Boston findings.

Speaking to the New York Times last year he said, "“I think it’s an opinion based on limited data. My perspective is, we should not make wholesale changes until we have more than opinion and speculation.”

The same paper however has also carried the argument of Dr Charles H Tator - a neurosurgeon at Toronto Western Hospital who specialises in work to reduce head and spinal-cord injuries in sports.

Tator, it seems, is singing from the same hymn sheet as Dr Kale. "We in science can dot the line between blows to the head, brain degeneration and all of these other issues,” he said when quizzed about the Boston research paper. “So in my view, it’s time for the leagues to acknowledge this serious issue and take steps to reduce blows to the brain.”

"[That includes] getting fighting out of the game.”

In its defence, the NHL has moved to reduce the amount of concussions suffered by players, forming the aforementioned working group to look into the very problem, but with health experts estimating that as many as 10 per cent of concussions are as a direct result of fighting, the simplest step would seem to be to outlaw sanctioned punch ups.

That though, many argue, would not remove the chance of serious head injuries among players.

Just this week a 16-year-old hockey player collapsed on the ice after being smashed into the boards by two opponents. Jack Jablonski, from Minneapolis, is still in hospital and faces being paralysed for life.

And, back in November, 16-year-old Kyle Fundytus died in hospital after he was hit in the neck trying to block a shot during what was considered a freak accident.
You can take the fighting out of hockey, it seems, but not the danger or health risks.

These sort of incidents however, are rare. Concussions due to fighting though, are far less so. And, as in the case of Boogaard, the impact of repeatedly being punched is not always known until it is too late.

Commissioner Bettman has defended the league's current stance. He recently said, quite accurately no doubt, “Our fans tell us that they like the level of physicality in our game.”

At what cost that physicality and at what point you begin to limit it is far more open to debate. However, the cheap thrill of seeing two heavyweights going head to head may need to be weighed up against the long-term health implications.

Particularly if not to do so could leave the sport with another Derek Boogaard on its conscience.

1 comment:

  1. Bobby Lee was my Grandfather. He sadly died on 31st December 1974, and is greatly missed.
    Here is a link to a pic of him from 1942 when he played for The Montreal Canadians. He was and always will be a hero of mine. Thanks for writing about him and his Tigers.