COVER

THUGS ON ICE

Leagues are cracking down on illegal hits that injure players— but they won’t stop the fights

JAMES DEACON November 9 1998
COVER

THUGS ON ICE

Leagues are cracking down on illegal hits that injure players— but they won’t stop the fights

JAMES DEACON November 9 1998

THUGS ON ICE

Leagues are cracking down on illegal hits that injure players— but they won’t stop the fights

COVER

JAMES DEACON

Todd Fedoruk looks terrible. The Regina Pats’ winger is a strapping 19-year-old from Redwater, Alta., with sandy-brown hair and the usual sports-guy goatee, and he would be handsome if it weren’t for an angry red-purple welt under his left eye, or the ripening bruise high on his right cheek. As for his nose, well, it’s a story all by itself. There is a still-bleeding cut on what used to be the bridge, and the mashed cartilage hooks alarmingly to one side—presumably away from where the telling punch was thrown. Being a recognized tough guy in major-junior hockey makes Fedoruk the target of every other team’s fighters and wanna-bes. So it was no surprise that the Lethbridge Hurricanes’ six-foot, seven-inch enforcer, Mike Yarhaug, would provoke a fight in the early minutes of a recent game at the Regina Agridome and exploit his reach advantage to rearrange Fedoruk’s features.

Showered and heading home in a dark blazer, white shirt and tie, Fedoruk admits he got suckered into a fight he should have avoided. He took up Varhaug’s challenge when another fight was already in progress, and in junior, combatants in the second fight are automatically thrown out of the game. It was a lousy trade for the Pats—Fedoruk is the more accomplished player. So his seventh broken nose in the past three seasons was for naught, and the only consolation was that Regina won anyway. “I shouldn’t have . . . ,” he begins, the words trailing away as his shoulders droop in contrition. “I’ve got to pick my spots better—I can’t help the team if I’m not on the ice.” In rinks around North America, hockey is slowly changing. The proof is that a junior tough guy like Fedoruk thinks he should have ducked a fight. The Western Hockey League is still a rugged circuit—Fedoruk’s was one of three bouts in the game. But that is child’s play compared with the late1970s, when there were brawls during the pregame warm-ups, particularly when the Ernie (Punch) McLean-coached New

Westminster Bruins were involved. The decline in fisticuffs is particularly evident in the NHL: there were 826 fights last season, an average of 0.77 per game, compared with two per game in the 1977-1978 season.

Fewer fights have not made hockey a safer game, however. For one thing, fighting has become more menacing in the NHL; enforcers are bigger, stronger and better trained in boxing. And for another, bodychecking and stickwork have become more vicious—hits from behind into the boards, slew-footing (kicking an opponent’s feet out from under him), and high sticks and flying elbows. In 1997-1998, Anaheim star Paul Kariya’s season ended with a crushing cross-check to the head; Toronto winger Nick Kypreos’s career ended with a single punch (page 73). It was, players say, the NHL’s meanest season.

That’s saying something. Hockey in Canada has long followed the old Conn Smythe dictum—“If you can’t beat them in an alley, you can’t beat them on the ice.” But now players show less regard for the safety of their opponents. It took the stomach-turning sight of Kypreos, unconscious and face-down in a pool of blood, to restart the age-old debate over whether fighting— severely punished in all other major team sports, not to mention society as a whole—should be allowed in hockey. This is more than just a moral and legal issue. The argument goes to the heart of how Canada is developing players at a time when, as the 1998 Nagano Olympics suggested, the country’s preeminence in pucks appears to be waning. And it took the frightening hit on Kariya by Chicago defenceman Gary Suter, and Suter’s laughable four-game suspension—a punishment that, in hindsight, hardly fit the crime—to spur leagues at all levels to reconsider the rules and how they are enforced.

To begin this season, the NHL announced it was introducing a system that, once it has enough trained officials, will put a second referee on the ice to help spot infractions behind the play. And last summer, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hired former player and New York Rangers coach Colin Campbell as the league’s senior vice-president and chief disciplinarian. In the first three weeks of the new season,

Campbell slapped nine offenders with fines and suspensions for hits from behind and sticks or elbows to the head. It may take a while to get the message through: just last week, Montreal’s Dave Manson earned a three-game suspension for a crushing elbow to the head of Boston’s P. J. Axelsson, and Mike Ricci and Bernie Nicholls, both of San Jose, were badly cut by high sticks. “The players were allowed to do some things in the last few years,” says Campbell, a native of London,

Ont., “and when they were given enough rope, they began to hang themselves.”

No one, however, is planning to ban fighting.

Fans in junior-and minor-league arenas are used to a steady diet of fistic mayhem, and besides, those operators say they take their cues on rule changes from the NHL. The NHL, meanwhile, says it is already policing the pugilists. Rules introduced over the past 20 years have eliminated bench-clearing brawls and heaped extra punishment on instigators and players who jump off the bench to trade punches. Still, combatants in routine bouts get mere five-minute penalties, and Campbell echoes the attitude towards fighting expressed by the majority in the hockey world. “It’s not something we can go and mess with right now,” he told Maclean’s.

“It’s part of the game that I think the NHL has controlled pretty good, and I don’t think it is a huge problem.”

No? In addition to the Kypreos incident, there was another heart-stopping scene at the end of the 1997-1998 season. Chicago defenceman Cam Russell, whose helmet had been knocked off while duking it out with Toronto tough guy Tie Domi, fell backwards and cracked his head on the ice. In stunned silence at Maple Leaf Gardens, Russell was carried off, and doctors say he was lucky to get away with nothing worse than a concussion.

Inside the game, there is growing concern for the welfare of the fighters themselves. “One of these days, a guy’s going to get the upper hand in a fight and he’s going to land a bomb in the wrong place, on a guy’s temple or something, and boom, someone could die,” says Michael Barnett, the influential agent whose roster of clients ranges from top draft picks to ageless superstar Wayne Gretzky. “And then all hell will break loose because everyone will stand back and say, ‘How did we ever let this happen?’ ”

Defeat weighs lightly on the 12-and 13-year-olds of the Tier II Flyers. Just off the ice after losing to the Rangers at AÍ Ritchie Arena in Regina, the boys are happily exchanging volleys of balled-up tape and yelling to buddies across the room, drowning out a long-suffering volunteer coach who is trying to get a consensus on which NHL jersey design they want this season. After much hollering, Nashville gets the nod. The expansion Predators are new, and new is cool.

Looking at the kids’ cheerful faces, it is difficult to imagine that much of the violent behavior plaguing the sport is learned at that early stage of organized hockey. Sheathed in armor from helmet to skate blade, young players feel a false sense of invulnerability, hurling

themselves around like projectiles and, too often, checking opponents headfirst into the boards. With masks protecting their faces, they crash into one another with elbows flying and sticks high. None of that seems to faze the Flyers who, in peewee, are allowed to bodycheck for the first time. “Hitting makes the game more interesting,” says 13-year-old Mike Laberge. ‘We should be able to hit as soon as we start hockey.”

But bodychecking can also be intimidating—boys that age can vary in height by a foot and in weight by some 60 lb., and the difference can be perilous to kids who are just learning how to take a hit. “You get lots of injuries that you didn’t see before,” says Flyers’ coach Jim Lauten. Scott McGillivray, who coaches a Tier I peewee team in Regina, says he benches players for dangerous hits, even if the referee misses the play and fails to call a penalty. “There’s definitely a lack of respect for their opponents,” McGillivray says. “That’s our biggest job as coaches at this level. We want them to hit, but hit cleanly.”

Even checks that don’t draw penalties can draw blood:

in the NHL last week, Ottawa defenceman Andreas Dackell suffered a concussion and needed 30 stitches to the face after being crunched into the boards by Philadelphia’s hulking Eric Lindros. “The players have lost respect for one another a little,” a rueful Gretzky told Maclean’s. Now in his 20th season, the Great One recalls that when he was still an Edmonton Oiler, thencoach Glen Sather made the players practise without helmets to teach them to keep sticks down. “We used to protect one another more than we do in this day and age,” he says. You can call it what you want, but things have changed—you never saw anyone go for Jean Béliveau’s head or Guy Lafleur’s head.”

In the stands at the Halifax Metro Centre, the 5,000 or so fans react to every stiff check and post-whistle confrontation between the home-town Mooseheads and the Drummondville Voltigeurs. Ernest Dingle, a 21-year-old commerce student, is hoping for a fight—“It makes the game an adrenaline rush,” he says—but is disappointed. “I think the refs were quick to stop the fights, too quick,” Dingle says. “They should let them go.” Another avid observer, Mike DiPenta, 49, says fights are inevitable when young men step on the ice. You put skates on and a helmet and you turn into a different human being,” DiPenta says. “If s true.”

That, in essence, is one of the well-worn explanations for why fighting is allowed in hockey: that players need to blow off steam because of the unique intensity of the game. Then there is what Claude Ruel, the venerable ex-coach who now scouts for the Montreal Canadiens, said while watching the Pats-Hurricanes junior game. “Nobody ever gets hurt in a hockey fight,” he argues, citing the difficulty of maintaining balance on skates. Another rationale comes from players, who insist the threat of having to fight an opponent helps discourage vicious stickwork.

Really? Consider:

• Is hockey so much more intense than, say, football that participants are compelled to smash their fists into opponents’ faces? Antifighting advocates say no and, off the record, many players say no, too. The difference is that in football, anyone who fights is immediately ejected and is subject to fines, so it doesn’t happen very often.

• To the old saw about no one getting hurt, well, Kypreos and Russell are recent rebuttals. “Don’t believe it,” says Kypreos. “Guys get hurt, absolutely.” Enforcers routinely sustain concussions, broken fingers and jaws, smashed noses, and cuts to the eyes and

Fighting may be the most overt violence in hockey, but it is not the most injurious.

Hitting from behind and stick fouls such as cross-checking, slashing and high-sticking have made the rink an increasingly dangerous place. Following is a sample of players who were seriously hurt—from fighting, illegal checks and stickwork—during the past decade.

1988 Ron Sutter, Philadelphia Flyers: broken jaw and concussion from a cross-check.

1988 Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh

Penguins: bruised sternum from a two-handed high stick.

1988 Jeff Norton, New York Islanders: bruised ribs and internal trauma from a slash.

1990 Tomas Sandstrom, Los Angeles Kings: fractured facial bone, scratched right cornea and bleeding inside right eye from a fight.

1993 Pierre Turgeon, New York

1993 Mike Peluso, New Jersey Devils: concussion from a fight.

1995 Rob Ray, Buffalo Sabres: fractured orbital bone from a fight.

1998 Nick Kypreos, Toronto Maple Leafs: severe concussion from a punch to the face.

1998 Paul Kariya, Anaheim Mighty Ducks: concussion from a cross-check.

face that require stitches. In 1996, Wendel Clark, then a key member of the Leafs, fractured his thumb in a fight and was lost for 16 games. And Detroit’s Joey Kocur now has so much scar tissue on his right hand that the skin no longer has any elasticity.

• Anyone who believes fighting is helping keep sticks down should consult Paul Kariya, not to mention the dozens of players who get clipped for stitches in the face every season. And Suter’s cross-check cost Kariya more than just months of headaches and short-term memory loss. It cost the sniper a place on Canada’s Olympic team in Nagano, which in turn deprived Canada, which fell one goal short of the gold-medal game, of perhaps its best player.

There is no question that fighting is part of North American hockey, but it is emphatically not part of the world game, which hockey is increasingly becoming. And the Russians, Swedes and Czechs—who never had to drop their gloves at home—now dominate the scoring race in the NHL. Yet the beating goes on: every team from junior on up has at least two so-called tough guys on its roster. And Don Cherry, who routinely decries the foreign influence in hockey on Coach’s Corner, proudly banned any Europeans from his expansion Mississauga IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League. At the weekend, the IceDogs had won only once in 12 tries—and led the league in penalty minutes.

So what’s the point of all that punching? Entertainment, pragmatists say. Brian Kilrea, the renowned coach of the major-junior Ottawa 67’s, has guided such crowd-pleasing skill players as Bobby Smith, Doug Wilson, Mike Peca and Alyn McCauley towards the professional ranks, yet he believes strongly that fighting sells tickets. Fights quicken the pulse in any hockey crowd, getting otherwise demure customers onto their feet and screaming for their man. In that respect, hockey may be a bit like stockcar racing—NASCAR fans, the saying goes, pay to see the crashes, not to see the cars go round and round. “If we didn’t have fights,” Kilrea suggests simply, “the attendance wouldn’t be as good.” Fighting is also important to some sponsors and TV networks. Advertising executives say the NHL’s most important drawing card is its appeal to the prized beerand truck-buying demographic, men between the ages of 18 and 35. They also happen to be the biggest fans of the more physical aspects of hockey, including fights. Then there are the sportscasts on TV: competing for viewers, The Sports Network and CTV

Sportsnet, among others, now show clips from virtually every available fight.

The NHL has conducted polls to gauge public reaction to fighting, but its findings are not conclusive. The league does know that gloves-on hockey still sells on TV because it gets its best ratings during international tournaments and the NHL playoffs, when there is almost no fighting at all. Ken Dryden, the Leaf president who is on record against fighting, says no one knows if fighting is scaring away more fans than it attracts, perhaps because no one is asking the right questions. And the league will consider banning fighting only if it gets the right answers. “The determining factor,” Dryden says, “is whether more people will watch if the fighting is taken away.”

Even if they wanted to, however, the league’s New York City-based leaders will not move quickly on the fighting issue. Traditionalists have been wary of Bettman, a former NBA executive, since he took control in 1993, fearing he would try to remake the NHL in the image of the hip-hop hoops league. He did, after all, approve Fox Broadcasting’s hated blueand red-streaked puck for U.S. consumption. But Bettman wants to build the league’s fan base, not alienate longtime supporters, so insiders say that if he plans to take action on fighting, he will do so with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. “He can’t lead with his chin on this,” said a senior NHL executive.

The NHL may not have to act. There are other forces at play in hockey that are gradually pushing pugilism aside. Nowadays, it is not just that there are fewer fights; there are fewer fighters, too.

Gretzky says highly touted rookies such as the Rangers’ top draftee, Manny Molhotra, are now exempt from the rough stuff.

‘Twenty years ago when I broke in, a kid like that would have had three fights in the first week of training camp,” Gretzky says.

“That’s what happened to Mark Messier.

Manny’s a big, tough kid, and other guys would have challenged him, to see what he could do. Now, he comes in, people know he’s a hard-nosed two-way player, but he’s not a fighter, so they leave him alone.”

The reason for the change? Dollars, mostly. “The rules have helped, but more than that, it’s the money we’re paying players now,” says Campbell. “Owners don’t want to be paying a guy millions of dollars and see him sit out with a broken hand or a broken jaw. You want your best players on the ice.”

That leaves fighting to the specialists, typically players with borderline skills who have made themselves useful with their fists. Today’s enforcers dwarf most of the old fighters. “They are as big as NFL linebackers, they’re tough and they are out there bareknuckle boxing,” Barnett says. “Real boxing stopped that years ago. If you asked Evander Holyfield to step into the ring with another heavyweight and fight without gloves, he’d say you were crazy. Yet for some reason, we let this continue in hockey.”

That does not seem to deter juniors, for whom fighting is a means to a lucrative end: in the NHL, long-serving enforcers can take home $1 million or more in a season. It’s how Fedoruk got into the Western Hockey League, first with the Kelowna Rockets and then with the Pats, and it helped get him noticed by scouts who, in addition to skill, look for size and “character”—a willingness to drop the gloves for the cause. In 1997, Fedoruk was drafted in the seventh round by Philadelphia.

Veteran fighters, though, acknowledge the risks. They do what they do knowing that what happened last season to Kypreos and Russell could happen to them. They have to accept that, in many cases, their families won’t watch them play because they hate to see

1 them get hurt. They know that, like Old West gunI slingers, they are the target of every tough new kid hopfe ing to make a name. All of that goes with the territory. Ë Then there’s the fact that enforcers rarely get to use 1 their playing skills because they have to concentrate on t the grim job of trading punches. “That’s why I always played my best hockey during the playoffs,” the Leaf’s Domi says. “I didn’t have to worry about fighting.”

That in itself is a good reason to crack down on fighting. Another, says 11-year-old Whitney Eberle, is that it disrupts the flow of the game. And besides, she adds, most fights are boring—more clutching than punching. Eberle, who plays girls atom hockey in Regina and watched the Pats-Hurricanes game with her parents and her brother’s novice team, thinks the Western Hockey League sets a bad example. “My little brother, he tries to fight and stuff because he sees these guys fighting,” the sixth-grader says, gesturing towards the ice surface. “I find the NHL games are more interesting because there are not as many fights and it’s faster.”

The players themselves may yet decide the issue. Kypreos says the sports fan in him likes to see a good fight in a game, but when he steps back, he gets a different perspective. “Sometimes I just shake my head,” he says. “I mean, it’s 1998 and we allow fighting. It’s part of the game, but don’t you think it’s kind of weird? I do that outside the arena and I know I’m spending the night in jail.” But what to do? “There’s such a fine line between what’s right and what’s wrong with fighting,” says Gretzky. “Why isn’t there any fighting in the playoffs? Because everyone is scared they’ll hurt their teams. Somehow we have to figure out how to make that work the rest of the year, too.” Hockey would be a better sport for it.

SHAUNE MacKINLAY

LUKE FISHER