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Campbell's Cuts: Sanderson's death must re-open fight debate

Don Sanderson died early Thursday morning. (Photo courtesy of whitbydunlops.com)

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Don Sanderson died early Thursday morning. (Photo courtesy of whitbydunlops.com)

Go ahead, accuse me of opportunism in the face of tragedy. I don't care much. What I do care about is that a 21-year-old man has had his life snuffed out because of a meaningless hockey fight and there is so, so much wrong with that.

Don Sanderson is dead. If you believe this is not the time to have a meaningful debate on fighting's place in hockey, then please stop reading and go back to blaming this incident on chinstraps and helmets. Anyone with any sense of compassion has to feel just sick about what has happened. Anyone with any sense of compassion grieves for the Sanderson family and for Corey Fulton, the player with whom Sanderson was fighting when he was injured three weeks ago.

But the reality is that with the emotion of the situation so fresh, there is no better time than now to examine fighting in hockey because everything possible must be done to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. Ever.

Don't count on the NHL doing anything about it in the near future. When I emailed deputy commissioner Bill Daly about the Sanderson death and whether it would prompt the league to examine fighting's place in the game, here was his response:

"It is an issue that from time to time is a point of discussion, so this may prompt further discussion. But I don't sense a strong sentiment to change the rules we currently have relating to fighting. We have advocated a mandatory chinstrap rule for at least the last eight years. The Players' Association has resisted the implementation of that rule, advocating player education instead."

So we see where everyone in the NHL stands on this. The league doesn't sense a need to address fighting and the players steadfastly maintain their right to risk being killed while doing it.

So if the people who run this game are unwilling or feel they are unable to do something about this blight on a great game, then perhaps it might be time for those who make the laws to do it for them.

When the Quebec provincial government threatened to consider banning fighting in hockey in that province in light of the Jonathan Roy incident last spring, both Hockey Quebec and the QMJHL snapped to attention and cracked down on violence. And they did it because they knew that if they didn’t do something about it, something would have been done for them.

Hockey Quebec announced an automatic two-game suspension for fighting on the first offence and the QMJHL increased its penalties for aggressors in fights from one game to up to 15 games at the discretion of the league and cracked down on fights during warm-ups.

It’s debatable whether any government could apply the same pressure on the NHL or act to police the game in a way the league cannot, but many of those who think governments have no business sticking their noses in the game are the same ones who willingly put their hands out to take public money to build their arenas.

There are those who refer to the Sanderson injury, which occurred in Major Hockey League game in early December when Sanderson hit his head on the ice during a fight, as a tragic, unfortunate accident. It was not an accident. An accident, by its very nature, is something that can’t be foreseen, but we have seen this coming for years.

We saw it more than 10 years ago when Nick Kypreos lay face down on the ice at Madison Square Garden in a pool of his own blood. Ryan Flinn and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen and Brandon Dubinsky have smacked their heads on the ice in fights in recent years and, thankfully, escaped serious injury.

An accident is also something that is not deliberate. There is no way of escaping the fact that Fulton was trying to do harm to Sanderson when he dropped his gloves and fought him back on Dec. 16. Otherwise, why else would he have fought him?

Anyone who hasn’t seen this coming hasn’t been watching players lately who fight. They’re bigger and stronger than they’ve ever been, some of them train themselves specifically to become better fighters and more and more of them are being seriously injured in hockey fights. Players are breaking their hands, having their orbital bones smashed in and getting concussions with more frequency than ever before.

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There are others who will say there has been fighting in hockey for the past 100 years and that it’s part of the game. If there’s a serious injury or death in the rarest of circumstances, well, we all just have to learn to live with it because that danger comes part and parcel with stepping on the ice in a game. Sorry, not enough space here to debunk the ridiculous “part of the game” theory, but under no circumstances should these kinds of things in fighting become accepted.

It's absolutely mind-boggling that the same pro-fighting advocates who scream for no-touch icing because of injuries that have occurred due to incidental contact will still cling to a player's right to fight, even after the death in the game. Let's do chin straps up tighter, they'll say. Abolish the instigator rule, others will say, like that will make a difference.

In minor hockey leagues all over North America, players wear prominent 'STOP' signs on the backs of their sweaters and the leagues they play in cracked down heavily on hitting from behind, largely because an infinitesimal percentage of the hundreds of thousands of people who play this game were rendered quadriplegics or paraplegics because of hits from behind.

The chances of the confluence of events of a player being hit from behind with enough force and in an awkward enough position to hit the boards and sustain a serious injury are incredibly minute, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming completely unacceptable.

But unlike hits from behind, many would argue a combatant in a fight has a choice and can see his aggressor head on. That’s true, but just because a player has a choice, does that mean the game and those who run it have no right to institute rules that ensure the safety of players? There was a time when helmets and goalie masks weren’t mandatory, either.

What this corner finds so disappointing was that in the immediate aftermath of the Sanderson injury, there was more talk about it being a “tragic accident” and the debate was more about whether chinstraps should be tighter or whether there should be rules governing the removal of helmets during a hockey fight.

Meanwhile, more than five pages of the NHL’s rulebook is taken up with rules concerning fighting, including one that stipulates that a player wearing facial protection will not receive an extra unsportsmanlike conduct penalty if he removes it – and presumably his helmet along with it – before instigating a fight.

What has happened to Don Sanderson has to at least re-open the debate not only on fighting, but the culture of violence that surrounds this game. It should be noted that the league in which Sanderson was playing punishes fighting with an automatic ejection, but it should also be noted that Sanderson’s fateful fight was his fourth of the season in just 11 games and the player he fought was in his third fight in five games.

For some reason, fighting is treated like a sacred cow. But it’s not and it stopped being a sacred cow the moment Sanderson’s head hit the ice.

Punishing fighting by an automatic ejection in a game that’s out of hand isn’t going to stop players from doing it. Serious penalties and suspensions will and it’s about time this game had a significant debate about its place in the game.

Hockey owes that to Don Sanderson. The late Don Sanderson.

The preceeding was an updated and edited version of a column that appears in the Jan. 9 edition of The Hockey News magazine.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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