Ryan Hollweg of the Maple Leafs fights with Nate Thompson of the Islanders. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
It was a hockey fight that started the way thousands of others have over the years, but it ended with a 21-year-old fighting for his life in a Hamilton hospital.
The fact the fight took place in the backwaters of senior hockey in Ontario will undoubtedly prompt some to dismiss it as a one-time accident, largely because that's what it was. But it has long been the opinion of this corner that it is only a matter of time before an NHL player dies as the result of a hockey fight and only then, maybe, will the game do something about fighting.
Because of a hockey fight, the parents of Don Sanderson of the Whitby Dunlops are sitting by their son's bed in a Hamilton hospital wondering when, or if, their son is ever going to wake up. After one surgery and some 60 hours after his fight with Corey Fulton of the Brantford Blast last Friday night, Sanderson was still in a coma. The only progress he had made as of Monday morning, according to the Dunlops team website, was that there was some movement in his fingers, but it was inconclusive whether it was voluntary or involuntary.
Those who saw the fight said it was pretty innocuous before Sanderson and Fulton began exchanging punches. With the Dunlops leading 4-2 at the 2:18 mark of the third period in a game they went on to win 5-2, the two players, according to one web account, “dealt each other a flurry of punches.” Sanderson's helmet came off and he hit the back of his head on the ice.
“It was nothing the way it started, just a tussle between two players,” said Blast owner-GM Peter Ham. “Under normal circumstances, the two guys would have just skated away.”
The fight occurred in a Major League Hockey game, which was formerly the Ontario Senior League. The six-team league is a haven for players who still want to play a high level of hockey, but have given up on the dream and are now pursuing full-time careers outside the game.
It is important to note that Major League Hockey follows the same rules as every other amateur league in the Ontario Hockey Association and punishes fighting with an automatic ejection. In fact, the OHA is one of the only branches in Canada that does not eject a player only after his second fight. However, that hasn't stopped the league from having 20 fights in its first 47 games this season. The league also doles out a one-game suspension for instigating a fight, but has called that penalty only twice this season.
Also, headshots are an automatic major penalty and two-game suspension.
“There really isn't much fighting in the league - it's a league of skill and finesse,” Ham said. “We have a lot of guys who have returned from the pros and they left the pros for a reason. They don't want to go into work with black eyes and bleeding lips and broken bones.”
“We protect our athletes,” said Don Robertson, the league's chairman of the board and owner of the Dundas Real McCoys. “We've been able to attract some quality players to this league and a big part of it is because of the rules that you fight and you're gone.”
They are right about it being a finesse league. In 47 games this season, the league has averaged 10.2 goals per game, but it would be wrong to suggest that it's lily white.
There are still tough guys who do their fair share of fighting and two of them were involved in the fateful fight last Friday night. In fact, the fight against Fulton was Sanderson's fourth of the season in just 11 games, meaning he has participated in 20 percent of all the league's fights this season. For Fulton, it was his third fighting major in just his fifth game of the season. Both players are 21 and both have NHL size. Sanderson is 6-foot-2, 200 pounds and Fulton is 6-foot-3, 210 pounds.
So, here we have a tragic situation because of fighting in a league where there's almost no fighting and everyone goes back to work or school the next day. Is there any doubt the day is coming when a tragedy will occur in a league where players are bigger and stronger and have a lot more at stake when it comes to fighting?
Just another warning for the NHL, another warning that it undoubtedly won't heed until one of its players finds himself in the same situation as Don Sanderson. Even then, I'm not so sure the NHL will do anything about it.
Carry on then…
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