Montreal's George Parros was stretchered off after falling chin-first to the ice during a fight with Toronto's Colton Orr this week. (Richard Wolowicz / Getty Images)
Detroit — After a nasty, though accidental, incident on opening night in the NHL, Mike Babcock said Wednesday that he believes the day will come when public opprobrium over fighting will result in banning it in the NHL.
“I think, for sure, there’ll be a day,” Babcock said, when fighting is no more. He believes the public, increasingly aware of the long-term damage caused by repeated brain trauma, will drive it from the sport.
“You’re always judged in the court of public opinion, are you not?” he said.
“The other night, when I was watching that game, I thought it was a farce. And I thought it was uncalled for and did not need to be.”
What happened was that in a fight between two NHL heavyweights, George Parros of the Canadiens and Colton Orr of the Maple Leafs, Parros reached to deliver a big punch, while both men held tightly to each other’s jerseys and Orr attempted to drag Parros down. The result was brutal and unintended: Parros flew over the top of Orr and crashed chin-first to the ice.
Parros was motionless, until tremors began to vibrate through his body. As Canadians watched the opening-night broadcast, coast-to-coast, along with some in the United States, he left the game on a gurney, the bloody damage to his chin apparent, but the hidden damage to the brain likely unknown for years.
When humans advance enough in their knowledge of life to know something is dangerous, even potentially fatal, what is the proper response?
It was something not considered for most of the decades the sport has been played. But, increasingly, medical research documents the overwhelming jeopardy.
We used to think “the cost” of playing sports like hockey and football involved limping around on arthritic knees. We all understand it is far more costly than that now, for many who take the potentially life-threatening risks for our pleasure, and theirs.
In the wake of Parros versus Orr, Steve Yzerman, the former captain of the Red Wings and current general manager of the Lightning, said players who fight should receive game misconducts.
Jimmy Rutherford, the former Wings goalie and longtime GM of Peter Karmanos’ Hurricanes, said, “We’ve got to get rid of fighting. It has to go.”
Babcock also expressed grave concern about the players and a game he loves and to which he is dedicating his life.
“It’s 2013, the last time I checked, and we’re talking about taking all of the head shots out of the NHL and that stuff’s going on?
“To me, I don’t understand it actually.
“There’s lots of hard, hard games that don’t allow fighting in it. ... And you know when you see a guy get hurt like that, you wonder what you’re doing.”
It's a tough call
The NHL may be poised at change. Or, bowing to the overwhelming popularity of fighting among fans, it may decide against it.
In a survey last year, 98 percent of the members of the NHL Players Association said they would prefer to have it in the game. That is likely in part because some players’ talent is mostly for fighting.
But another reason is likely the deterrence that protects many players, especially the stars, from dirty or just overly aggressive play.
It also is quite clear that a punch to the head is but one thing that causes both concussions and long-term brain damage. Doctors say significant damage can occur absent a direct blow to the head. The movement of the brain and brain stem inside the head during a vicious tackle or a body-check is also hazardous, especially when repetitive.
“How much is the hockey and how much is the fighting, we don’t really know,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, after he studied the brain of the late, beloved Red Wings enforcer, Bob Probert.
Some are like pornography
Dani Probert, Bob’s widow, told The New York Times, “In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe fighting is what did this to Bob. It was hockey — and the checking and hits, things like that.”
She is no doctor. But she loved a hockey player.
For all my life, I have thought fighting a necessary part of the NHL game.
And I still believe that even after eliminating all body-checking that targets the head and fighting, brain damage will remain a problem as long as violent contact is allowed, even if only below the shoulders.
Which is why I think the unnecessary fights in hockey are like crashes in NASCAR, more pornography than anything I enjoy watching.
But when Henrik Zetterberg is repeatedly cross-checked in the lower back or when Shea Weber takes Zetterberg’s head in the palm of his massive glove and rifles it off the Plexiglass twice, Zetterberg’s teammates must defend him.
In part, because if they do not, there will be more violent abuse.
I am not sure it is wise to eliminate fighting. But more regulation is plainly in the offing, and fans absolutely must reconsider for what they cheer.
Please do not leave your morals and judgment in the car when you enter the rink.