The death of an enforcer in Canada earlier this month resurrected ice hockey’s peculiar conundrum: fighting remains integral to the game, even as other sports heap daunting fines and unpaid suspensions on its brawlers.
A 21-year-old defenseman in a highly regarded amateur league sustained a head injury Dec. 12 during a fight he apparently instigated. Donald Sanderson, who played for the Whitby Dunlops based outside Toronto, lapsed into a coma and died Jan. 2.
The death of the player, even an amateur, dredged up hockey’s longtime dilemma. The over-21-year-old league takes its cues from the NHL. The NHL lax attitude toward fighting, even while other professional sports dish out drastic punishments, seems to acknowledge that its fervent fan base expects, perhaps demands, these bursts of extracurricular violence with the price of a ticket.
The league’s problem, of course, is that the legalized fighting limits the fan base. Parents bent on teaching their children that pounding on one another might not be the best way to resolve conflicts, wonder how then to explain the skirmages that burst out on a hockey rink. So much for the pretense that sport instills children with great values.
Purists, of course, gag at the notion of surrendering their game to shrinking violets, wimps and woosies. But that limits the NHL, which would like to grow its game.
Of course, European leagues and American colleges eschew violence – and manage to survive. The death of an enforcer in Toronto is likely to draw some discomfiting comparisons to hockey’s two competing ethics.