Coaches Corner maybe becoming increasingly irrelevant as the staunchly patriotic Don Cherry rambles about musings better suited to an age when every player was nicknamed “Butch” and that a Swede was something related to jokes about corners. But as Cherry provides the antithesis to contemporary hockey analysis I once more find myself agreeing with his misty eyed old school view of hockey in the wake of Don Sanderson’s tragic death. Sure I may find a lot to fault Cherry with, but the way in which he handled Sanderson’s passing was touching and unerringly appropriate at a time when fighting found itself once more centre stage for bandwagon discourse.
Cherry is more a hockey man than anyone could ever wish to be and after allowing an apposite period of time to pass, approached the subject with the usual bluster that has made him such a national icon. Defending its place in hockey, Cherry was more concerned with setting his sights on the media fraternity that have used a young mans death to springboard a lopsided dialogue on the ills of fighting. His particular concern was those that are 9 till 10 hockey reporters who are still rubbing their eyes when getting on to more “relevant” sports. Hell, Sanderson’s death provided an easy cut and paste issue with which to cover in 1,000 words whilst beating hockey like the stereotyped piñata it has become in some parts of North America. Cherry certainly isn’t wrong, with such an emotive subject nobody but hockey people should be approaching the topic without some degree of impartiality, where Cherry did falter was his belief that the calls of dissent where coming merely from the jack of all trades journo’s with deadlines to kill.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer at The Hockey News the games foremost global mouthpiece. A leading light who exudes a degree of influence within the game, Campbell is an experienced hockey journalist and author. Opening up the January 12th edition of The Hockey News what do I find but Campbell’s “In The Slot” segment emblazoned with the bold lettered heading “Stop Fighting.” In the article Campbell proceeds to spew forth a misinformed diatribe about how fighting is being enforced without discussion with much of the laws concerning the very acts of fighting as opposed to the dangers. Campbell then suggests that were Sanderson’s injury (who at the time was still on life support) a result of icing “there would be calls from far and wide to go to no-touch icing” while trivializing the risk of injury caused from a hit from behind as “minute” when discussing the use of stop signs on players jerseys in minor hockey leagues.
That players are bigger is no qualm and that one can draw from a series of examples to besmirch the act of pugilism regrettable. What Campbell’s greatest crime was to lazily excuse his lack of a response to the “part of the game” theory which he branded “ridiculous” because there simply wasn’t “space” too. Obviously he hasn’t been watching the upsurge of cheap shots merchants that evolved from the last great cull of goons following the labor disputes. The agitators who go into games to hurt players with monstrous, timeless hits and head down board rammers who’ve taken it upon themselves to threaten the stars of the game, not just with their careers but their mobility and often times without response due to the useless instigator penalty.
I wouldn’t say that one can compare the honor of a player such as Sanderson standing up for a team mate or his team with that of clumsy agitator’s needlessly threatening injury from hits from behind or incidental icing injuries. Campbell is correct in saying that while there is a small chance of a severe injury being caused by a hit from behind it is nonetheless a totally unacceptable act. But for this very reason you cannot try to eradicate or police fighting with such stringency because fighting is an act of unthinking bravery in the face of cowardice.
While many could argue that Gretzky’s success was a product of McSorley’s and Semenko’s fists and that Anaheim won a Stanley cup while atop the league of fighting majors is by the by, fighting is a tool of players policing players, the NHL’s most recent buzz phrase. Sure you can apply a rule where fighting is an instant game misconduct, but then that very rule was in place when Sanderson and Corey Fulton went face to face in their Senior A game. You can even try breaking up fights when helmets come off or the chinstraps aren’t on tight enough or impose arbitrary suspensions. What will come in its place will be a far more unregulated and dirty culture of violence sans any kind of honor and fighters will keep on dropping their gloves to protect their brothers rendering this very debate redundant.
Perhaps Ken Campbell realized this as the knee jerk heading culminated in a somewhat more turgid article that concluded in a call for greater suspensions and a reopening of the debate; but in light of Sanderson’s death Campbell has remained steadfast in his personal appraisal of hockey fighting retooling his previous article in the very same profiteering and biased way he framed the original.
Writing on The Hockey News’ website, Campbell questioned the NHL’s deputy commissioner over the possibility of renewed discourse regarding fighting in the hindsight of the tragedy. Unhappy by the response he received from Bill Daly who reiterated the leagues stance on fighting regulations, Campbell drew upon the QMJHL example of Jonathon Roy and the subsequent response of the Quebec provincial government to rabidly call any government to apply some pressure on the NHL to do likewise and institute a two game suspension policy at least.
From the comments at the close of Campbell’s online THN blog it’s clear the majority of fans are growing weary of his personal agenda with many calling for him to leave the subject alone while others brand him an opportunist. Furthermore the reaction suggests Campbell has failed to gauge the pulse of the fans when most see the Sanderson incident as that of a tragic accident, that Campbell chooses to maintain that it isn’t is just further damaging to the tragedy that has befallen Corey Fulton. Yes players can choose to skate away from a fight but in doing so you cow tow to aggressors who don’t follow a code and whose own moral code is base at best. Taking away a players choice to fight is tantamount to the same thing. For every one player killed in a fight, which up to now is one, how many more will have their careers or their life’s ended to merciless cheap shots?
Perhaps one is best served by the anecdotes that Don Cherry gave us in concern of Corey Fulton meeting Don Sanderson’s parents while he lay in a coma. Sanderson’s father a hockey coach; reputedly spoke to Fulton who had been desperate to meet with the family and who was questioning his own future in the game. Mike Sanderson told him to continue playing and furthermore to not hesitate dropping the gloves if another player comes looking for trouble. Cherry may not always be the most reliable of wordsmiths but as an attendant at Don Sanderson’s funeral we have no reason not to believe such a conversation occurred.
Why Ken Campbell continues to make a crusade out of tragedy when everyone else concerned has seen the incident as a freak accident is bizarre and seemingly self serving, that he is drawing support from prominently none hockey audiences or those that already daubed the game barbaric is of concern. Campbell is hockey’s bad press and his influence is detrimental. I would love to see the game remain as hard hitting as it is while simultaneously 100% safe but with such impossible crossroads the game has to turn, one to a more diluted version of the game Don Sanderson loved or the other as the great game he played. Sure make it safer do everything you can to protect players but don’t penalize fighters when the alternatives are worse and don’t try to legislate change from those outside the game. Fighting is and always will be part of a beautiful sport of controlled violence and skill.