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Should fighting in hockey be eliminated?

December 15, 2011

Hockey fans everywhere, including in New Jersey, love to watch a good fight on the ice. They argue that it makes the game more exciting, and that fighting is simply part of the game. But what cost is the cost of this thrill?

Is a good, aggressive game of hockey is worth a player’s life? Probably not, but a recent investigation into the death of New York Ranger Derek Boogaard has determined that he suffered brain damage in a manner consistent with multiple blows to the head. No wonder — this NHL player was known as one of the fiercest NHL enforcers who was regularly expected to battle the biggest and toughest NHL players.

Boogaard died this past May from an overdose of alcohol and painkillers. With the permission of his family, researchers at the Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy examined his brain and found enough evidence to determine that Boogaard had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as CTE. In fact, three other former NHL players whose brains were studied after death were all found to have CTE. All of them were also known to have taken numerous blows to the head during regular fighting in the NHL.

Boogaard, however, was far younger than other sports figures whose brains have been found consistent with brain damaged caused by repeated minor brain injuries over time, rather than by a single catastrophic injury. Boogaard was only 29 at the time of his death.

With this new evidence, the question is now whether professional hockey should ban fighting, which truly is an important feature of the sport, in order to protect players from the same fate. The NHL says there is not enough evidence that blows to the head cause brain damage, so the league is not willing to ban fighting.

The Boston University findings demonstrate that the repeated, smaller hits to the head incurred by hockey players can result in CTE, even for relatively young players like Boogaard. Other independent experts also agree that there is enough evidence to prove the connection between repeated blows to the head and brain damage.

The symptoms of CTE are similar to those of Alzheimer’s disease, and can include deterioration in cognitive abilities, speech impediments, staggered gait, tremors, lack of insight and poor judgment. The fact that Boogaard apparently suffered from drug and alcohol issues may have in fact been an indication of his CTE.

It is believed that fighting is the cause of 10 percent of all the concussions suffered in hockey. By allowing fighting to continue in the NHL, players are being placed at risk of serious brain injury. Though the NHL holds tight to their position that there is not enough information to warrant banning fighting in the game, does it not make sense to at least limit fighting until research can prove that it is not a danger?

Source: The New York Times, “In Debate About Fighting in Hockey, Medical Experts Weigh in,” Jeff Z. Klein, Dec. 12, 2011

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