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Major Misconduct: The Human Cost of Fighting in Hockey

Major Misconduct: The Human Cost of Fighting in Hockey

by Jeremy Allingham

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Available for Pre-Order. This item will be available on November 5, 2019

Overview

Every night in hockey arenas across Canada and the United States, modern-day gladiators drop their gloves and exchange bare-fisted blows to the bloodthirsty roars of the paying public. Tens of millions of people a year, including children, watch and cheer on the fighters. Some players are paid handsomely; others barely a living wage. But either way, these fighters are lauded, valued, and considered to be essential to the game. That is, until their playing days are over. Hockey enforcers spend their lives fighting on ice to protect their teammates and entertain their fans, but when their playing days are over, who’s left to fight for them?

Major Misconduct scrutinizes a highly dangerous and controversial cultural practice. The book dives deep into the lives of three former hockey fighters who, years after their playing days ended, are still struggling with the pain and suffering that comes from bare-knuckle boxing on ice. All of these men believe they may be living with the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy. They may have had their shot at pro hockey glory, but none of them is rich or famous, and the game has left them with injuries and trauma. They have experienced estrangement, mental health issues, addiction, and brushes with the law. And they’ve stared death in the face.

The debate surrounding fighting in hockey is hotly contested on both sides. This daring and revelatory book explores the lives of those who bare-knuckle boxed on ice for a living and investigates the human cost we’re willing to tolerate in the name of hockey fighting.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781551527710
Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press, Limited
Publication date: 11/05/2019
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.00(d)

About the Author

Jeremy Allingham is an award-winning journalist and musician from Vancouver. He works for the CBC, where some of his most recent and poignant work has included in-depth coverage of the opioid crisis, the Northern Gateway Pipeline, and federal politics.

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

Growing up, my most vivid hockey memory is one that was repeated over the course of countless, very early weekday mornings. There I am, standing on skates, in full gear, just barely able to see over the boards and staring out at the lingering fog hovering above the ice. The rink is cold and quiet. The ice surface is perfect and smooth. It hasn’t been touched since the Zamboni’s last laps late the night before.

The hour may have been ungodly (3:57 a.m. or so) and it may have been mere minutes until a dad would come out and let us onto the ice, but those moments were excruciating. The anticipation to hit the ice, to mark up that clean sheet with choppy, pint-sized strides was overwhelming. I couldn’t wait.

And when that dad came out, and the gate opened, with its creaking hinges and always-sticky latch, I was set on the loose. The freezing cold air on my face. The cacophony of steel cutting ice. The echo of wooden sticks on rubber pucks and the near-deafening bass of puck on hollow, wooden boards. The whistles. The drills. Bright orange cones zigzagging across the playing surface. Our white, smoky breath, rhythmically leaving our bodies as our lungs heaved for air. We skated, and skated and skated some more, as the fog lifted to the rafters and the sun rose outside the rink.

It was bliss. It was freedom. It was religion.

Hockey is an easy game to love, and love it is what I’ve always done.

But there’s a dark side of the sport that, despite taking place out in the open for all to see (often right at centre ice), is able to hide in plain sight. And like a savvy defenseman backpedalling on a dump and chase, it interferes with my love for the game.

It’s the fighting.

Bare-knuckle boxing on ice has long been accepted and promoted, not only as a necessity in the game, but as a promotional draw. “By golly, not only do these men fly across the ice at inhuman speeds, shooting a rubber bullet more than 100 mph, they also take breaks in the action to pulverize each other’s faces with bare fists!” I can almost hear Bob Cole or Chris Cuthbert making that call, or something close to it anyway.

Hockey’s history and its current culture are steeped in fighting lore. Go up to pretty much any player or fan and ask them about a Gordie Howe Hat Trick. They’ll be quick to tell you: it’s a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game. The inference has always been that a Gordie Howe Hat Trick is just as good (if not better) than the traditional, and objectively more valuable 3-goal version where hats float down from the crowd over the glass, littering the ice, like flowers on stage for a virtuoso artistic performance.

You can probably already tell where I stand on fighting. But in the interest of full disclosure, for a long time, I was fully on board with the scraps. I lived for Coach’s Corner and Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em videos. I adored the fighters and chanted “Giiiinnnooo” as #29 patrolled the ice for the Vancouver Canucks at the Pacific Coliseum in the 1990’s, ready to punish anyone who dared take a cheap shot at the Russian Rocket. I even remember publishing a blog as a writer and researcher for the hockey reality show ‘Making the Cut’ (which aired on CBC and then Global in the mid 2000’s) where I parroted the argument heard so often from players-turned-analysts, that the hockey on the show would be better if the producers and scouts would allow the players to fight for the protection of the stars. And this was not a preferential argument I was making. It was stated as imperative, just as I had heard done throughout my childhood from so many intermission panels on Hockey Night in Canada and TSN. They HAD to fight, if for nothing less than the very safety of the players on the ice. (If you’ve read 1984, I believe Orwell referred to that kind of argument as ‘double-speak’.)

But those pro-fighting feelings changed for me one night at a junior hockey game. The Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League were set for a Friday night tilt (literally and figuratively) in front of a rowdy hometown crowd at the Coliseum. Me and some good friends had a few beers at our shared East Van house (only $1,500 between 5 guys back in those days!) and made our way down to the arena. Our buzz was on, the work week was in the rearview mirror and the weekend vibes were feeling good. We settled into our seats about 10 rows up and just to the right of centre ice, double-fisting Molsons, talking and laughing loudly, hitting a quintessentially Canadian night out at the good old hockey game in full-stride.

All that to say, I wasn’t exactly ready for an epiphany that fine evening.

Just as the referee released the puck for the opening faceoff, two players dropped the gloves. It was instantaneous. I could’ve sworn the gloves beat the puck to the ice. Before the game had even begun, there was a fight. The first thing I noticed was the crowd’s reflexive bloodlust. Young, old, man, woman, no matter, they sprung to their feet. There was no contemplation, and most definitely not a second thought in the building. It was straight from the guts. “GET HIM!” The Friday night crowd was already primed and this put the fans right over the top. The roar of 10,000 voices blasted through the stadium.

The next thing I noticed was the players faces. Square jaws, sure, but baby faces to be certain. These were kids. We, the crowd, were thousands of fully-grown up adults (with plenty of kids mixed in) cheering, even demanding that two children beat the shit out of each other with bare fists on ice.

Haymakers were thrown, landed and received, and after about 30 seconds (which felt more like 5 minutes), the linesmen (adults who watched and allowed that 30 seconds of violence) stepped in to break it up. The bloodthirsty crowd, once again, showed its appreciation for the burst of violence with raucous applause.

A fight like this was something that, up until that point, I would’ve, at most, celebrated along with everyone else, and at least, paid little to no mind. Just a routine donnybrook to set the tone of the game. But this time was different.

I felt sick to my stomach.

I borrowed a program from a nearby fan, quickly scanned the roster cards and found out that the boys who fought were 16 and 17 years old. These really were children. Kids bare-knuckle boxing, for what? For hockey’s fabled ‘momentum’ in the hopes of providing early fuel for a team victory? To prove that they’re tough enough to make a career in the notoriously violent WHL? To show scouts that maybe, just maybe, they can play and fight at the professional level? To impress us, the bloodthirsty, ticket-buying public?

I had an overwhelming feeling that what I had just witnessed and implicitly supported was deeply wrong. I spent most of the rest of the game in the concourse, drinking a few more beers and trying to forget what had happened and how I had reacted. But that one fight has always stuck with me, and left me with so many questions. Questions about our sport, about our culture and about our values, especially when it comes to children pursuing the game they love.

Fighting in hockey is a deeply divisive and highly emotional debate that tends to get ugly pretty much as soon as it starts. I would be exaggerating only slightly to say that it falls into the same powder keg category as abortion and Israel/Palestine. You might find that hard to believe, but the level of histrionics, and anger that accompany this debate, particularly on the pro-fighting side, have never ceased to amaze me.

My first real experience facing the rage and derision (not to mention the toxic masculinity and homophobia) associated with the fighting debate came from an innocuous reply to a fairly standard Don Cherry tweet back in February of 2013. (We’ll hear a lot more about Cherry and his role in fighting culture later in the book).

Cherry tweeted:

“Just saw on one of the tv channels the 5 greatest brawls in basketball. Are ya kiddin me? They were slappin each other.”

To which I responded:

“@coachscornercbc Fighting in hockey is a disgrace to Canada and the game.”

In a matter of minutes, there were dozens of tweets defending Don and attempting to smash me (virtually) to smithereens. They ranged from legitimate arguments, to personal attacks and on the extreme end, they were more than a little bit ugly.

There was the boilerplate argument (the one I had espoused for years) that fighting is intrinsic to hockey and that I should solve my problem with fighting by simply not watching with “Shauna @shotzz22” replying:

@jerallingham @coachscornercbc fighting in hockey is & always has been part of the game. If you don't like it change the channel. Easy fix.

My Canadian bonafides were thrown into question by “Bakes @bakerbakes_22”:
jerallingham @coachscornercbc if you don't like fighting in hockey, well your adopted and not Canadian #leafsnation #goleafsgo

And just some good old-fashioned, expletive-heavy, social media name-calling from “DJS @DakotaJaymes23”:

@jerallingham @coachscornercbc fuck you and the horse you rode in on. Get the fuck out


And then, we move on from the “mostly all in good fun” category, into the ugly. First, toxic sexism from “M @pegtrkr”:

@jerallingham you and your vagina are WRONG! Pussy

And the truly hideous side with outright homophobia and hatred from “eddie hill III @_EH3_” who wrote:

@jerallingham @CoachsCornerCBC i think ur probably gayer than aids kid

Without taking up too much space with any more of the responses to my 11-word tweet opposing fighting in hockey, I was also called, in no particular order, “crybaby”, “a disgrace” (multiple), “pussy” (multiple), “tree hugger”, “dummy” (multiple), “hipster”, “candy ass”, “an embarrassment” , “idiot”, “gun-toting yank” (?), “dumb ass” and “a joke”.

Remember what I said about the depth of intensity and anger inherent to this debate? Do you believe me now? I’ve learned that fighting in hockey sincerely is a cultural sacred cow.

After that social media circus, I realized I had hit a nerve and pitched an article to Vice.com. On March 6th , 2013, a fight between veteran Toronto Maple Leaf enforcer Fraser McLaren and Ottawa Senators rookie Dave Dziurzynski caught the attention of the hockey world. It was Dziurzynski’s first NHL fight. It was most certainly not Fraser McLaren’s. The fight, if you would call it that, happened only 26 seconds into the game. Dziurzynski appeared ready, fists raised in the defensive position, as the fighters circled one another. But once they engaged, it was clear, the rookie wasn’t ready. Not at all. On McLaren’s fourth-straight clean shot to the head, Dziurzynski dropped to the ice, face down, arms limp, body still. He had been knocked out cold.

A few days later, my article headlined “Fighting In Hockey Is A Disgrace To Canada and the Game” (the same as the tweet to Don Cherry word for word) was published on the Vice website. The responses in the comments, on the article and particularly on Facebook, made the Twitter comments I mentioned earlier seem like good-natured ribbing. The hatred, the sexism and the homophobia reached disturbing and brutal new levels.

Despite those experiences, and perhaps because of them, I was determined to write about fighting in hockey. To have a debate. To bring the hidden dark side of the game to the surface.

When I first started investigating fighting in junior hockey for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, I thought I was going to be presenting a debate about one particularly violent part of a sport that has its fair share of violence. I thought I’d find supporters of fighting, and detractors, we’d have a debate and move on. But what I discovered were personal stories. Stories of young men who believed so deeply in their dream of playing pro hockey that they were willing to risk everything. They risked their bodies, and their brains. They may not have known it at the time, but ultimately, they were risking their lives.

What I found in my deep dive into hockey fighting was a cultural force that was shattering lives, and leaving the fighters in the dust to pick up the pieces. The fights were bigger than the legend, bigger than the lore. The fights took hold of these young men and changed them irreversibly. They became different people after the fighting was done. In some ways, and I’m fully aware of the seriousness of this comparison, it was like going to war. When I write about this subject, it’s not only about hockey. It’s about the people who play hockey and believe in hockey. It’s the people who give everything they have to the game. It’s about what they’re left with when they have nothing more to give.

I’m well-aware that many of you will strongly disagree with what I write. You may even share some of the thoughts of social media users above (hopefully without the unforgiveable homophobia and sexism). But it’s important that, at the very least, we have a level-headed, adult conversation about what is objectively a serious issue.

Many brilliant books have been written about the hockey fighters whose lives have been lost. This is a book about those who have survived so far. In some cases, they’re surviving only just barely. They may have played and fought in the professional leagues, but that level of success is fleeting, and for every 5 or 6-years of pro hockey enforcing, there are often many more years of pain, uncertainty and suffering that follow.

When we think of professional hockey players we most often think of million-dollar contracts, fawning media coverage and adoring fans. We think of private jets, prime time TV and star struck fans reaching desperately for autographs. But that life is reserved for the few who achieve sustained success at the highest level. The vast majority of professional hockey players are blue-collar workers, plying their trade in the minor leagues. They ride the bus. They carry their own gear. Their pay cheques don’t have quite so many zeroes. In some cases, they barely earn a living wage. The crowds are modest. The media coverage sparing. It would be hard to argue that the compensation is commensurate with the job, particularly for those fighters, who after their career, so often have an arduous and sometimes disastrously difficult road ahead.

That post-playing-days road includes the fallout from concussions, and the possibility of a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The players don’t know if they have CTE because the medical ability to diagnose the disease in living patients is still being developed. But what they do know, is that they share painful and dangerous symptoms that are common with the disease. They know they’re struggling and they know something significant has to be done to either stop their lives from spiraling out of control, or to save them from certain death.

This book is about regular men who gave their lives to the sport they loved and now live with the consequences of a life lived bare-knuckle boxing on ice.