photo by Brett Weinstein
Growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s meant, for a preteen boy, watching the New York Rangers take on their NHL opponents at Madison Square Garden, and in the five other cities that had franchises at the time.
I never went to a game in person – between ticket prices, working parents and a long subway ride to the middle of Manhattan, that was never even an option – but I did not miss many that were carried on local TV. Along with the then-rising New York Knicks of the NBA, the Rangers helped fill the months between baseball seasons, and then they conveniently melted away in the springtime like dirty snow on the city streets. Even in a six-team league, and even with great stars like goalie Eddie Giacomin and forward Rod Gilbert, the Rangers never won a Stanley Cup in those days. They wouldn’t until 1994, long after I had grown up.
Unlike my ongoing fandom for baseball and basketball, I lost interest in hockey once I reached my teenage years. For one thing, I never played it. There were no ice rinks in my neighborhood; competitive sports consisted of stickball in the streets. But the bigger factor was the NHL’s wave of expansion from six original teams to 12 in 1967, 14 in 1970 and 16 in 1972 (with continuing expansions to 31 franchises today). This growth not only grossly diluted the talent pool, but it changed the style of the game completely. Suddenly, the contests were interrupted repeatedly and violently by fights on the ice. Teams added a new role – the “enforcer” – whose job was to batter, bruise, intimidate and occasionally maim opposing stars, or at least to present the threat of doing so in order to prevent such tactics from being deployed against the enforcer’s own teammates.
I didn’t reach any profound decision to abandon the NHL after deep moral reflection. I just was not especially interested in watching unskilled goons give each other bloody noses, or worse. The games now seemed designed to appeal to boxing fans and orthodontists. I was neither.
I have only looked in on the NHL on rare occasions for most of the time since. The exception was that 1994 Stanley Cup run for the Rangers, who finally broke their long streak of futility that year. My Bronx roots called me home, and I watched the playoffs with increasing interest. But then I went away again.
A funny thing happened on my way to becoming a Floridian, though. I rediscovered hockey, with most of my interest focused on my new hometown team, the Florida Panthers. I’ll admit, it became almost irresistible partly because my wife hated the team’s lunging-cat logo. (She refuses to let me wear my bright red sweatshirt around her except when I’m in my inflatable kayak, where she sees it as a safety device.) But it also seemed to me the game itself had changed again – less fighting, more action and a team that, like the old Rangers, has in recent years shown flashes of great promise without actually getting very far. This attraction must be in my DNA, because I am also a New York Mets fan, with secondary allegiance to the Miami Marlins.
It turns out the statistics bear me out. Ten or 15 years ago, an NHL season could easily include between 650 and 700 fights. The 2001-02 season topped 800. But since 2012, that number has stayed below 500, and preseason games have gotten less violent as well. The league is finally focusing on marketing its real product, which is the sport, and eliminating (or at least reducing) the nasty sideshow that erupts when players drop their gloves. But the change hasn’t gone far enough.
In 2016, The New York Times profiled Stephen Peat, who played in the NHL for several years as an enforcer. His final season was 2005-06, at which point a variety of injuries forced him to retire. Peat now exhibits symptoms, such as memory loss, depression, impulsiveness and headaches, associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). While the condition cannot be definitively diagnosed except by autopsy, the symptoms in conjunction with the knowledge that other enforcers who have died prematurely exhibited CTE markers in their brains make Peat and his father inclined to believe that his health problems are the result of the blows he took during his professional sports career.
In 2015, Peat burned down the home he and his father shared. Though he pleaded guilty to arson charges, Peat told the Times he had done so to avoid the publicity of a trial and that the fire was an accident. Peat’s father Walter, who has remained in touch with the Times since the profile last year, said in an email to a doctor affiliated with the NHL Players’ Association, “The NHL has offered zero help” with Peat’s ongoing health problems. Later messages to the doctor and to the Times journalist revealed a sharp and tragic deterioration in Peat’s situation.
In the profile Peat observed that, as fights have decreased and the enforcer position begins to fade from prominence, the NHL seems to be trying to sweep the more violent chapter of the league’s history out of sight rather than working to take care of players who may be suffering because of their former dedication to the sport. The NFL, the league most people associate with CTE, has faced much more public pressure to stop pretending that concussions aren’t a problem. While the future of professional football and CTE is not yet clear, the NFL is funding research into the condition and at least trying to reduce violent hits to the head in the meantime. A lawsuit brought by former NHL players may force the hockey league to take stronger action, too.
But in both hockey and football, there is still a long way to go. Last Sunday, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski threw himself at the head of opposing defensive back Tre’Davious White of the Buffalo Bills while White was lying on the ground, out of bounds, after having made his third interception of the game. White suffered a concussion, and at this writing it was unclear whether he would play this Sunday. What was clear was that Gronkowski, who apologized after the game, probably will not, since he drew a one-game suspension.
I have a suggestion: When a player in any major sport acts in a way that deliberately disables an opponent with an obvious intent to do bodily harm, the offender should be kept out of action for at least as long as it takes the injured opponent to return. If White were to miss the rest of the season, so would the playoff-bound Gronkowski.
A rule like that would surely clear much of the needless violence away from even high-contact, high-risk sports like football and hockey. And it would probably make the pastime more attractive to preteens who really just care about the game.