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Posted: May 23, 2021

As far as hockey goes – never again, never again

“Perceptions,” by Gerry Warner

Op-Ed Commentary

It’s the time of the year when red-blooded Canadian males look forward to what they love the most – the NHL playoffs. And yes, there will be some great hockey to be seen from the likes of Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Sidney Crosby.

I hope you enjoy it, but don’t look for me to join you. I can no longer tolerate Canadian hockey. As Hemingway said in one of his famous books, “I’ve made a separate peace.”

And if you were honest with yourself, you’d likely come to the same conclusion. But you won’t because you likely share an addiction to Canadian hockey. It’s in our genes. We’re born with it. It’s a major factor in our culture. Some would say the major factor in our culture. And that’s sad. It’s beyond sad. It’s tragic and if you’ll do me the courtesy of reading on I think some of you may actually agree with me.

So please give me the chance to make my case.

It finally hit me about two weeks ago when what was supposed to be a routine NHL game between the New York Rangers and the Washington Capitals degenerated into an ugly line brawl less than a second after the puck was dropped to begin the game.

Six grown men, supposedly professionals, writhing on the ice punching each other in the head, spit flying, blood splattering and curses filling the air while the fans brayed for more. The date was May 6, 2021 but it might as well have been the time of the Roman Empire and the bodies piling up in the coliseum.

A bush league exhibition of mindless, male machismo at its worst masquerading as a “sport.”

Yes, there’s a little hyperbole here. But not much and I haven’t even got to the real nitty gritty yet. That will come soon. But I want to give you an insight into how such a macabre spectacle could happen at all.

For that, you have to go back to an organization known as the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), where amongst other things, hockey pugilists are taught the “craft of fighting” according to a brilliant and sickening article by TSN’s Rick Westhead to whom I’m deeply indebted. Westhead tells the story of how one young, rural, Canadian lad got trained to be a “role player” otherwise known to hockey aficionados as a “goon” in the CHL, which supplies the NHL with more players than any other league.

Four CHL players have filed a class action suit in BC Supreme Court accusing the CHL (the league the former Kootenay ICE played in) of not providing them with proper medical care for fight injuries they suffered after being encouraged to fight by their respective teams.

Myles Stoesz of Steinbach, Man. described himself growing up “as a happy and easy-going kid” but was told by his Spokane Chiefs coaches that he had to fight in order to get ice time. “I was moulded into this rage-filled fighter,” he said of the 88 fights he had as a CHL player. “I recall being told I had a concussion at least twice, and now that I know the symptoms of a concussion, I know I had many more. I was never told to get medical attention for my hits to the head or other injuries. My recovery time was when I was sitting in the penalty box icing my fists.”

In his affidavit, Stoesz said he was a so-called “enforcer” and his role was to fight and when he was 16 the Chiefs sent him to a local gym where an unnamed NHL “tough guy” trained him in “the craft of fighting.” Describing his time in Spokane as a “daze of fights” Stoesz said, “I’m in my early 30s and I suffer from headaches and migraines and my right hand is disfigured with a mallet finger from punching.”

Another of the affidavit signers, James McEwan, a left winger with the Seattle Thunderbirds, said after one fight he passed out later in the parking lot while talking to an assistant coach. McEwan said he suffered for years from distorted vision, severe anxiety, depression, and mood swings “I often turned to alcohol and painkillers to cope.”

Being in the same league as the ICE, these players would have played in Cranbrook and undoubtably provided some fighting entertainment here. And while the ICE were not a particularly rough team, I recall seeing an ICE defenceman knocked out cold during a scrap and later assisted to the dressing room. It was near the end of the season and he played little after that and even though he was supposed to play next season when training camp started, he failed to show. Smart kid, I thought to myself. He knew when he had enough.

But many don’t and serve as fodder to protect the “skilled players” from being hurt for the fans that like “real hockey” instead of brawls. Amongst the players, it’s known as “The Code.” If you hurt one of our skilled players you will pay for it big time because we’ll inflict another concussion on you. That’s how the “Great One,” Wayne Gretzky, was able to play for so long unscathed because he had a 215- pound bully “protector” known derisively as “Cement Head.” It’s a system not unlike the Mafia, but it doesn’t always work.

Todd Ewen and Bob Probert, both long-time NHL enforcers, fought numerous times in their decade-long careers and suffered numerous concussions. Neither man reached 50 after retiring. Over the years, according to another article by Westhead, the NHL has been sued by 137 players for concussion injuries with a settlement expected in the staggering range of $US18.9 million. The players allege the league glorified and profited off violence while ignoring warnings from the scientific community about the long-term implications of repeated brain trauma while the NHL argued that the players know going in that hockey is violent but play anyway, Westhead said.

According to Wikipedia, the only direct death from an NHL injury occurred Jan. 13, 1968 when Minnesota North Stars centre Bill Masterton died in hospital 30 hours after being taken from the ice following what the referee called a “clean hit” by two Oakland Seals defenders which knocked him backwards hitting his head on the ice and bleeding from the nose, ears and mouth. Masterton was not wearing a helmet and helmets were not legal at the time. Before passing out, Masterton muttered, “never again, never again.” Well, that’s what I say reluctantly now about hockey – never again, never again!

If “clean” checks can kill, why do they allow fighting?

Lead image: An unidentified Kootenay ICE player and Medicine Hat Tigers player engage in fisticuffs in Western Financial Place during a 2011 WHL tilt in Cranbrook. e-KNOW file photo

– Gerry Warner is a retired journalist, who despite his aversion to hockey today, is still a huge fan of the 1961 World Champion Trail Smoke Eaters.

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