It is long past time for the National Hockey League to put an end to fighting and head shots, whether intentional or unintentional. The three former NHL "enforcers" whose lives ended this summer at their own hands underlines the fact that players are exploited in order to heighten a gladiatorial atmosphere in what is already a rough game.
As well, Sydney Crosby's slow recovery from a concussion resulting from a cheap head shot is only the latest in a long series of head injuries that seriously impair hockey players' ability to live full and productive lives.
A player who keeps his stick on or close to the ice will have nothing to fear from a rule that bans all contact to the head of another player. It needs also to be said that a two-minute minor penalty is not sufficient deterrent for an action that could drastically alter the course of another person's life.
Both Hockey Canada and the International Ice Hockey Federation have banned contact to the head. But the NHL continues to maintain that head shots are a necessary part of the game.
Eric Lindros, the star player who retired in 2007 after suffering at least eight concussions, spoke out earlier this year in an interview with Maclean's. "If no one says anything then it's the status quo. The status quo is not working," Lindros said. "What most people don't get is that underneath all the gear and styles of play, there's a person. There's a human being with feelings."
Lindros spoke of his severe depression, irritability, fear of going out in public, and various physical symptoms, all of which were the result of the numerous head shots he took. Lindros and Crosby are far from being isolated targets. Many of Canada's best athletes are being felled by an injury that is largely avoidable.
In other professional sports, fighting means being immediately tossed out of the game and possibly a suspension. But not in the NHL.
Former Calgary Flame Jim Peplinski, a quality player who had been in dozens of fights, recently called for the abolition of fighting in hockey. Peplinski sees the growth of premeditated fights in a game where fights used to be the result of emotions boiling over. One result of the change: Players who have no other role than to get in fights with the "tough guys" of other teams.
"I think most fights - 90 per cent - add nothing to the game and in fact, they take away from the beauty of the game," Peplinski told The Globe and Mail.
For hockey to regain its credibility as a game of skill and sportsmanship, the goon-like behaviour needs to be driven out.
For the sake of humanity, the NHL needs to take a hard line and abolish head shots and fighting. The current practices have no rational or moral arguments in their support.