The league's tolerance for fighting may be killing its enforcers.
Hockey is Minnesota's official state sport for good reason: It's a beautiful, thrilling game of skill made for cold climates.
We're proud to be the "State of Hockey," as the Minnesota Wild song goes, but we're not alone. Every Canadian province and many other states have embraced the game.
More recently, so too have northern and eastern Europe, where new hockey hotbeds have fed the internationalization of the National Hockey League.
Given the growing worldwide popularity of the sport, the NHL is in a strong position to finally take on the fighting culture that detracts from the game and, as described in an extraordinary three-part multimedia series in the New York Times, may be killing its players.
The Times series, "Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer," focuses on former Minnesota Wild player Derek Boogaard. It details his rise from a gangly Canadian youth to the NHL's most-feared fighter to his accidental overdose of Oxycodone and alcohol in Minneapolis last year.
The series also revealed that an autopsy of Boogaard's brain showed that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a close relative of Alzheimer's disease.
Only a posthumous diagnosis can certify the affliction, but symptoms include memory loss, mood swings, impulsiveness and addiction, which the Times ascribed to Boogaard's later years. Had he lived, he likely would have suffered middle-age dementia.
CTE has been diagnosed in all four of the former NHL players posthumously examined, and in 20 former pro athletes who suffered blows to the head, including football players and boxers.
The extent of Boogaard's brain damage was a "wow moment," Dr. Ann McKee, one of four co-directors of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, told the Times.
Boogaard's death should prompt the NHL to have its own wow moment, and realize that fighting isn't a necessary part of the game. Hockey is already a violent game; no one is suggesting that life-altering injuries may not occur.
But the NHL, and the minor leagues that feed it, are alone in promoting and profiting from a fighting culture that is damaging lives. The same level of tolerance, if not encouragement, for fighting isn't found at the youth, college or many European pro-league levels.
A defensive Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner, told the Times that, "There isn't a lot of data, and the experts who we talked to, who consult with us, think that it's way too premature to be drawing any conclusions at this point."
Bettman's dead wrong. No additional medical evidence is necessary.
Like other pro, college and high school leagues, the NHL has admitted as much by trying to address the kind of checking that has sidelined such star players as Sidney Crosby with concussions.
To have a double standard for the enforcers, who routinely suffer and deliver direct blows to the head, is gambling with their lives.
It's even more cynical if Bettman is hedging his bets out of fear of fan reaction. "If you polled our fans," he told the Times, "probably more would say they think it's a part of the game and should be retained."
That's an incredible copout, and Bettman knows it. Just as real hockey fans know the sport doesn't need fighting to sustain it.
The most significant game in the sport's history -- and the game that helped solidify Minnesota as the "State of Hockey" -- was the "Miracle on Ice."
USA coach Herb Brooks wanted skaters on his roster -- not brawlers -- and he built a team that could compete with the speed and skill of the international teams.
The NHL would do well to emulate the Olympic Games and put an end to fighting on the ice.
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