The NHL has made a commitment to reducing the incidence of concussions in the game that its players play for our entertainment. Their new concussion protocol is surely a step in the right direction (notwithstanding comments by Brooks Laich, which actually demonstrate the need for such a protocol, since players cannot be expected to make such decisions when possibly suffering from a head injury). However, some people are quick to point out that cracking down on head shots and concussions seems something of a hypocritical path to be taken by a league that still allows its players to punch each other repeatedly in the head as an ordinary occurrence. If head shots are supposed to be on the way out, why are the frequent, premeditated head shots that occur in hockey fights still allowed in the game?
It's a legitimate question, and we'll certainly never be able to address all sides of the issue in a single column. What we can address here is some of the attempts to dismiss the idea that fighting is even worth looking at in the context of concussions. That's the typical response to the possibility that fighting may be much more dangerous in the long term than was previously thought, to brush it aside, dismissing it out of hand. That's what we cannot afford to do, for the players' sake.
First, let's dispense with the slippery slope argument. No, banning fighting from the game would not mean eliminating all hitting and physicality. You can eliminate one without the other, and it's a fallacy to say otherwise. Chances are, though, that if you bring up the subject of eliminating (or even reducing) fighting in the game you will hear that doing so will inevitably lead to the game becoming the Ice Capades. That's nonsense, of course, and simply an attempt to avoid the issue. We'll never be able to eliminate concussions from the game entirely, as hockey is an inherently dangerous sport. But that doesn't mean we can't reduce the number of needless injuries by eliminating the behaviors that are both more likely to cause injury and don't contribute much to the game itself.
What Results in Concussions in the NHL?
A study by the NHL's Hockey Operations department, released this past April, looked at concussions in the league over the past two seasons. It revealed that while 44% of concussions were the result of legal hits, only 8% were the results of fighting. Some have seized upon this fact (see here, for example) to argue that fighting is such as a small contributor to concussions that it's not worth worrying about. It might also seem to provide some ammunition for the slippery slope argument discussed above. After all, legal hits result in five-and-a-half times as many concussions as fights do; clearly, if we seek to eliminate fighting for that reason we must also eliminate hitting as well. If we cannot eliminate the single biggest cause of concussions, surely picking away at the minor ones is only scratching the surface?
It's not that simple, of course, and such an argument would be a devious misuse of the data if made intentionally, rather than through misunderstanding. First of all, although fights only caused 8% of the number of concussions in the study period, according to the study, it caused 16% of the man-games lost to concussion. This suggests that the concussions that resulted from fighting were more serious than average. Conversely, legal hits accounted for 44% of the number of concussions, but only 32% of the man-games lost to concussion. This suggests that legal hits resulted in the least-serious concussions of all types: accidental hits accounted for 26% of concussions and 31% of man-games lost, illegal hits 17% and 17%, and indeterminate causes accounted for 5% and 5% respectively. So, instead of legal hitting being five-and-a-half times as dangerous as fighting, it seems twice as dangerous would be a more appropriate figure to use in this context.
But even that figure is not accurate, because it doesn't considered the frequency of the respective causative events. Legal hits may produce more concussions than fights, but if there are many more legal hits than fights, it's still fair to say that fighting is more dangerous. We know that there were 1,274 fighting majors handed out in the 2010-11 NHL season, which means there were 637 fights (since it takes two to tango). This means there were 39.8 fights per percentage point of man-games lost due to fighting-related concussions (637 divided by 16). In order for legal hits to be only as dangerous as fighting, then, there would need to have been only 1,274 (40 times 32) legal hits made by all teams during the entire 2010-11 NHL season. For it to be twice as dangerous, there would need to have been only 637 hits.
There were actually 55,911 legal hits made, assuming anything recorded as a "hit" in the stats is a legal hit. So there were 1,747 hits per percentage point of man-games lost due to legal hit-related concussions. This implies that fighting is over 43 times more likely to result in a man-game lost to a concussion than a legal hit is. Any claim that legal hits are more dangerous than fighting, due to the number of concussions caused, is a dangerously specious one. Unfortunately, we don't have any measure of illegal or accidental hits, so we cannot perform similar calculations for those events.
This provides something for the cost side of the equation, and as such to be equal footing with hitting, fighting would have to provide 43 times the benefit that hitting contributes to the game. This is not the sort of thing that is easily quantifiable, but I will provide this opinion: if you really consider fighting to be 43 times as important to the game of hockey that good, clean hits are, I think there's a MMA tournament on a few channels over. You'll probably enjoy it.
The Defense of Fighting
Defenders of fighting in hockey have used the same arguments for years. These arguments generally involve the bromides that fighting is necessary, because otherwise the other team will take liberties with your star players (the "protection bromide"), and the idea that because hockey is such an intense, physical sport, players need a release valve for their stress, otherwise they would do something more dangerous than fighting, such as violent stick fouls (the "release bromide"). There are others as well, of course, but these are probably the two most common arguments put forward. As I said, these same arguments have been used for decades if not longer, and haven't changed in that time.
The arguments on the other side of the issue, however, have changed quite dramatically in recent years. The amount of research coming to light just in the past few years with respect to head injuries in professional sports is significant and disconcerting. Which is to say that there are significant new arguments against tolerating fighting in hockey, while its defenders still fall back on the same old bromides, providing nothing new. It's part of the game, they say (the "part of the game bromide"), without considering whether it should be part of the game, which is the thrust of the arguments based on the new research.
Ultimately, my point is that it's time for the discourse about fighting in hockey to catch up to the research. Platitudes just won't cut it anymore. Serious, rational discussion is needed in light of the new knowledge we now have. Ignoring it, dismissing it, deriding it does no one any good. Don Cherry might be tired of people blaming fighting for depression and drug abuse (even when he gets the names wrong), but it seems there's good reason that he keeps hearing it. I think we all need to hear it, and think about what it might mean.