George Parros is a big, strong man. He's generally acknowledged to be a good teammate and an interesting guy. He's Princeton educated with a degree in economics and was once named the fourth-smartest athlete in all of professional sports. George Parros has a lot going for him, but he is not a hockey player.
A hockey player's main job is to either score goals or prevent goals from being scored against his team. Parros' main job is to fight. He's in the NHL not because he's a smart guy or a good teammate or a great skater or has slick hands. He's there because he's 6'5", 230 pounds and can punch really hard. Last night, a stupid missed punch in a stupid fight meant to prove...what exactly?...caused him to crash with all his height and weight to the ice and injure his brain. His Princeton brain.
To make it worse, his family...his real family, not the "hockey family" that pays him to hit people...was there to see him carried away on a stretcher. His blood stained the ice and his glazed eyes stared without comprehension, and for what? It wasn't for the glory of the Habs, who fought four times and still lost the game. It wasn't for his own glory, as it's his concussion, rather than his hockey or fighting skills, that's making headlines today. It wasn't for fans, because the only people cheering after he collapsed cannot be called fans of sport.
Fighting does not belong in hockey. The rules of the game itself oppose it, assessing a major penalty for those who partake. New penalties addressing fighting...the instigator, suspensions for leaving the bench to join a fight, instigating a fight in the last five minutes of a game, the aggressor penalty...are all meant to limit fighting, not support it. At the end of the season, there are no awards given to the player or team that fights the most or the best. It's not an "outlet" for the naturally violent emotions generated by playing a hard-hitting, physical game. If it were, people like David Desharnais and Tomas Plekanec would be dropping the gloves regularly. Hiring people to fight on their behalf belies the "emotional vent" theory.
Also undermining the argument that players must have a way to purge their violent feelings is the fact that when games are really important...playoffs, Olympics...nobody fights. If emotions drive fights, one would think the biggest games would generate more of those emotions than a run-of-the-mill regular-season game on a Tuesday night. Yet, it doesn't seem to work that way. The fighters fight while the skilled players watch. Perhaps the league's leading scorers and top goalies don't have any emotions so don't need a vent.
Every other major league sport ejects fighters from their games. All those other "emotional" athletes are told fighting is an unacceptable way to express themselves and, for the most part, they don't do it. Hockey's allowing it makes the league look something less than professional. When the most well-known hockey joke is "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out," the game itself becomes a bit of a joke.
The NHL believes fans come to games or tune into them on TV in the hope of seeing a fight. Yet, playoff games draw the biggest audiences, and fights in those are few and far between. That would, perhaps, suggest to the league that fans are more drawn to actual hockey than to the sideshow fights that plague regular-season games. The NHLPA argues fighting is "part of the game," while it stands by and watches as professional boxers in hockey gear get beaten night after night, sustaining injuries that put their actual careers and futures at risk. It's no coincidence that, were fighting to be eliminated from hockey, a quarter of the league's players who currently hold borderline fourth-line "toughness" jobs would be out of work.
The argument that eliminating fighting would lead to an increase in stick infractions doesn't hold water either. Other leagues, like the NCAA, have banned fighting and show no notable increase in players sustaining serious injuries from stick fouls. There is, however, ample evidence that fighting causes serious injury, and in the sad case of Don Sanderson, death. Referees can control the stick infractions by calling them tightly. Players soon know that extra slash or high stick isn't worth it, with so much of a game's outcome determined by special teams.
Kids watch their NHL heroes fighting. They emulate the pros, so they fight too. Fighting is part of hockey because it's taught by example to the youngest players. It's part of hockey because junior hockey and NHL GMs will hire a guy who can't otherwise cut it if he can fight. They make a buck off the backs of guys who can't let go of the dream and are willing to risk their health for it, because fighting might put a couple of extra bums in seats. Now parents are rebelling. They don't sign their kids up for hockey in the numbers they used to, at least in part because they don't want to put children at risk of injury. They don't want them to fight. Kids aren't allowed to fight at school or on the playground, but they get rewarded if they fight at the rink. That's the same mentality that says a parent who curses or boos a kid at a piano recital is crazy, but the same person is perfectly within his rights to yell at children on a hockey rink.
Last year, the Globe and Mail newspaper surveyed Canadians and asked whether they'd support a fighting ban in hockey. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said they want fighting banned in all junior hockey. Sixty-eight percent want it gone from the game altogether. When questioned about the skills they believe are necessary to play the game, 95% of Canadians believe skating is essential. Ninety-three percent say shooting the puck is an important skill. Seven percent say it's important for a hockey player to know how to fight.
The NHL cannot, in good conscience, take a stand against concussions at the same time it's allowing fighting. Yet, Commissioner Gary Bettmen continues to be a hypocrite, citing the old "part of the game" argument. At the same time, the NHL is tacitly admitting something's got to give by instituting the silly "no taking your helmet off during a fight" rule this year. It's allegedly supposed to reduce fighting injuries, and maybe prevent a fight if a guy doesn't want to cut his knuckles on a visor. It's more likely an attempt by the league to get out in front of a lawsuit launched by the family of former fighter Derek Boogaard, who died at 28 years of age in 2011. Boogaard's brain showed signs of a degenerative brain disorder that can be caused by repeated blows to the head. The family is suing partly because it says the NHL exploited Boogaard's ability to fight, which contributed to his death, and partly because it allowed him access to the painkillers he needed to deal with the physical consequences of fighting, and to which he became addicted. If there's one thing likely to move NHL owners, it's their bottom lines, and a successful suit against them would not be good news. So, voila! The NHL says players can't take their helmets off during fights, showing a sudden concern for the well-being of players. You can still fight, says the league, but we want to protect your head while you do it. It's a cynical approach to a serious issue, at best.
USA Hockey and Hockey Canada are more boldly admitting it's not a great idea for teenagers to punch each other in the face, so they're looking at steps to eliminate fights among junior-aged players. The process is abominably slow, but it's at least an acknowledgement that there is a problem.
In the end, it's a sad commentary that after all the hype about the Habs/leafs opening game, the story emerging from it is George Parros' concussion. It's pathetic that some who support fighting are making the case that he could have easily slipped and fallen in a similar way at any point during the game, therefore it shouldn't be considered a "fighting injury." Sure, he might have fallen anyway. He didn't, though. He fell during a fight. When a guy plays six minutes a game and his main job is fighting, the chances of his falling during a fight rather than in an innocent hockey play are greatly increased. The bottom line is, if he hadn't been fighting last night, it wouldn't have happened.
If there were no fighting, perhaps George Parros wouldn't be receiving an NHL salary today. It's quite likely he wouldn't be. He also wouldn't be sitting at home nursing a concussion right now. He'd probably be using his undamaged Princeton brain to do something productive, and he'd be feeling a lot better.