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Should Hockey Allow Fighting? Canadian Doctors Don't Think So

AP_HockeyFighting.jpg

Does fighting in hockey directly contribute to brain injuries? If you asked National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman, he'd tell you, plain and simple, there isn't enough research to conclusively link the two.

"I think in this whole area there is probably entirely too much speculation and rumors and the like on something that is simply a tragedy," Bettman said at the conclusion of the NHL Board of Governors meeting earlier this month.

Earlier this week, the Canadian Medical Association Journal ran an editorial that begged to differ with Bettman, titled, "Stop the fighting and play hockey."

It's something for youth hockey leagues to consider, even if the NHL won't.

Dr. Rajenda Kale, the interim editor-in-chief of the journal, writes, "What researchers from the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, Boston University School of Medicine have found in the brains of three prominent hockey players ... should be enough to sway minds to impose a ban on all forms of intentional head trauma, including fighting."

Doctors from BU found evidence of CTE in the brains of all three men. They also recently discovered CTE in the brain of Derek Boogaard, a deceased 28-year-old NHL player, who was the recent subject of a three-part New York Times series.

"The simple message ... is that the brain does not tolerate repeated hits," Kale wrote. "Evidence from boxing injuries collected over decades shows that repeated head trauma can cause brain damage. This evidence can be extrapolated to hockey."

The irony, as the Winnipeg Free Press recently noted, is that the NHL has made strides in recent years to reduce the frequency and severity of head impacts for their players. For whatever reason, that safety effort has yet to include fighting, however.

Youth Hockey and Fighting

The Colorado-based USA Hockey, which sets a national set of rules for youth hockey leagues, enforces ruels against fighting much more stringently among youths.

Any youth player who gets involved in an on-ice fight earns a five-minute "major" penalty and a "game misconduct" penalty, which immediately disqualifies him or her from the current game and his team's next game, according to the 2011-13 rulebook of USA Hockey. The team is allowed to substitute a player, and that substitution serves the five-minute major penalty.

Lesser penalties are assessed to players who drop their stick during an altercation but don't actually engage in combat.

In pro hockey, the rules are hazier. According to the 2010-11 NHL Rulebook, "the referees are provided very wide latitude in the penalties with which they may impose under [the fighting] rule. ... The discretion provided should be exercised realistically."

I've reached out to Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, with a few questions about the organization's policy toward fighting and whether more severe penalties would be considered in the immediate future, based on the ongoing discussion about fighting and concussions.

To USA Hockey's credit, its board of directors earlier this year approved a new checking skill-development program, which outlaws full-body checks in the ages 12 and under leagues.

Instead, coaches in the 12 and under leagues will be encouraged to emphasize body contact (not head contact) when teaching proper checking technique to their players.

Roger Goodell and the National Football League have become prominent forces in the battle to prevent sports-related concussions in the past few years, as I've covered before. With Bettman, the NHL commissioner, still denying any link between fighting and long-term head injuries, it appears that youth hockey won't have similar pressure coming from its professional counterparts.

Instead, USA Hockey has a chance to set a player-safety precedent that the NHL can adopt.

As Hall-of-Fame goalie Ken Drydek recently said in a piece for ESPN.com's Grantland, "The debate about CTE is important, but it's a distraction. The debate over fighting is a distraction. This is about head injuries. This is about what we can see. This is about what we absolutely know. This is now."

For the alternative, CollegeHumor recently posted a video that you might want to watch.

Photo: The late New York Rangers' Derek Boogaard, right, and Philadelphia Flyers' Jody Shelley fight in the first period of a 2010 NHL hockey game in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)

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