“You’ll never get rid of it entirely.”
Michael Sanderson spoke those words to practically anyone who would listen in the days following his son Donald’s death. And in a nation suffering no small amount of guilt over a senseless loss, they were received as absolution. In the depths of his grief, this man got it, the self-styled purists said. He’s played the sport. He knows fighting is embedded in it. He won’t use the death of his 21-year-old son—by universal account about the best kid you could ever meet—as a pulpit to rail against that which sets the game apart. “Other people won’t understand this,” Don Cherry told his coast-to-coast audience after attending Donald Sanderson’s memorial service in Port Perry, Ont. “But Mike is a hockey guy.”
Yet on this subject, more so than any other, we Canadians don’t listen closely. Or we hear only what we want to. So if you’ve been gathering your information on this slow-moving controversy from Coach’s Corner, it may surprise you to learn that Michael Sanderson would in fact love to see fighting eliminated from the game. You may be shocked to hear he supports measures that would suffocate the practice. Automatic ejections? “Helluva rule.” Requiring players to keep their helmets and visors on during fights? “Great. If they know they’re going to be punching plastic with their bare hands, they’ll eventually stop.”
As for that stuff about “never getting rid of it,” well, the pro-fighting advocates appear to have missed Sanderson’s point entirely. It’s part and parcel of his argument that throwing players out of games and fining them would limit fighting to blue-moon incidents, which can then be severely sanctioned. He cites football, baseball and basketball as sports whose ejection rules have made fighting look “frigging ridiculous.” “They have a fight every once in a while,” he says. “I mean, it’s going to happen. But mostly guys just don’t bother.” Oh, and one more thing: he’s no friend of Don Cherry, with whom he says he has “issues.” “He said we sat there like we were buddies [at Donald’s funeral],” Sanderson says tightly. “I’m, like, no we didn’t.”
Not buddies, not fellow travellers, not allies in a rearguard action against the bleeding hearts. If truth be known Michael Sanderson shares the view of a growing number of Canadians who sensed the ground tilting after the Jan. 2 death of Donald Sanderson, whose head struck the ice after his helmet came off during a fight. Don was no household name: he played for fun with a senior-level team in Whitby, Ont., between classes at York University. But for anyone who has talked hockey over a tray of cheap draft, it was a whispered fear come true. Someday, someone’s going to get killed, we warned ourselves. And now that someone had, it seemed hypocritical not to act. In the days following Sanderson’s death, six out of 10 respondents told a Leger/Sun Media poll they favoured banning fighting from all amateur hockey. The Ontario Hockey League, the province’s top junior circuit, meanwhile, banned players from removing their helmets to fight.
Yet when the discussion came around to the NHL—the last and most influential bastion to keep fighting alive in the game—it ran up against the same old immovability. Sure, a few progressive minds wondered aloud about whether it’s time to discuss the issue (Colin Campbell, the NHL director of hockey operations, promised to raise it next month at a meeting of general managers; Ken Holland, the GM of the Detroit Red Wings, applauded). But by and large, Holland’s peers held firm. Only two of 18 surveyed by TSN support stiffer punishment for fisticuffs, while the league-wide response to Campbell’s proposal was best articulated by Toronto’s Brian Burke. “I think that will be a very short discussion,” he said. “I am not in favour of it.”
The importance of this resistance is obvious. More than mere professionals exercising their freedom to engage in the occasional fist fight, NHL players are beacons youngsters follow into the game. But rather than change, the players, their bosses and the media commentators have circled themselves in dubious arguments for the status quo. Fighting protects talented players from cheap shots, they say. It serves as a release valve for emotions. The fans love it, and so on. There are a host of reasons to question these assumptions—starting with the quaint notion that fighting is the wrong way to resolve our differences. But like Michael Sanderson’s true feelings, they get drowned out by patriotic bluster. The time has come to shout a little louder.
That fighting is embedded in the DNA of hockey is hard to dispute. It is said that the first game played indoors under written rules ended in a fight, as players at McGill University in Montreal scuffled with members of a skating club who wanted to use the ice. That was 1875, and it followed several accounts of outdoor hockey devolving into fist fights and stick-swinging incidents in Toronto and the Maritimes.
The rationalizations came later—most notably the idea that a contact sport played at such high speeds needed fighting as an outlet for anger. “Nothing relaxes the boys like a good fight,” said Francis “King” Clancy, the legendary Toronto Maple Leaf of the 1930s, in a flash of Irish bravura. Clarence Campbell, the NHL’s long-time president, popularized the “safety-valve” trope, warning that, without fighting, “the players would no doubt develop more subtle forms of viciousness.”