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THN.com Blog: Want to reduce concussions? Ban fighting

Richard Clune fights with Ryan O'Byrne. (Photo by Noah Graham/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Richard Clune fights with Ryan O'Byrne. (Photo by Noah Graham/NHLI via Getty Images)

Competition committee review and Board of Governors approval pending, the NHL took some baby steps this week in its quest to reduce concussions. We’ll give them a golf clap for at least addressing the matter.

But if this league were truly serious about tackling brain injuries head-on, someone, anyone, in a position of authority would have tabled the notion of a ban on fighting.

If the managers required inspiration, they only needed to turn on their TVs to Versus (assuming they know where to find it in their home markets) to see Andreas Lilja return to action for Detroit March 1 after missing more than a year due to a concussion incurred during a fight with Nashville’s Shea Weber.

Lilja joked about what he learned during his time away from the game, saying, “I don’t know. Not to fight Shea Weber, maybe.”

Good line, but one brimming with wisdom. Because like it or not, fighting is a proven concussion-causer. It’s the ultimate head shot, loaded with intent to injure. Every time a player throws a punch, he’s targeting an opponent’s head, hoping to knock the other guy down, if not out, before he starts seeing stars himself.

Granted, there is no hard data at our fingertips to prove how many brain injuries happen as the result of fisticuffs. And that’s something The Hockey News will try to address in the coming weeks or months.

But we do know what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is reported to have said on TSN’s “Off the Record” about a year-and-a-half ago, estimating a quarter to a third of concussions happen as the result of fights. “So now do people want to eliminate fighting from the game as well because that might result in concussions?” Bettman said.

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Apparently not.

When contacted about the statement, an NHL official wouldn’t confirm Bettman’s reported estimate, saying only if it ever were that high, it isn’t now. OK. We’re not sure how fighting has been made safer since the autumn of 2008 – maybe guys are punching more softly – but let’s assume the number is as low as 10 or 15 percent. That’s still approximately eight-to-10 players concussed every season in fights, some serious enough to miss a year’s, or career’s, worth of action.

And with the news a few months ago that one-time NHL pugilist Reg Fleming died as the result of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition most often associated with boxers, the stakes were raised even higher.

That fighting in hockey and its impact on brain health is nowhere to be found on the league’s radar screen, at least for a topic of discussion or debate, isn’t shocking.

It’s just highly irresponsible.

Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays.

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

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