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NHL should get serious about violence and head trauma

Despite having nothing to do with the actual sport of hockey, which at its best is a blend of grace and power on skates, fighting has become an inseparable part of the pro hockey experience. While other team sports are cracking down on on-field violence, the National Hockey League implicitly accepts fighting as a part of the sport — or, more cynically, a vehicle for riling up fans. But it’s time for the league to reassess the role of fistfights in its games, both for the safety of its players and the example they set for young athletes.

Evidence is now emerging that repeated head trauma, of the type meted out by team “enforcers,” can lead to the same chronic traumatic encephalopathy that is striking football players. On the opening night of the NHL season, a fight resulted in a Montreal Canadiens player being knocked unconscious as his head hit the ice. A preseason fight resulted in a concussion and broken jaw for a rookie for the Buffalo Sabres.

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Finally, some leaders within the sport are saying that enough is enough. At a conference on concussions recently, Michael Stuart, chief medical officer for USA Hockey and co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine center, said it was time to ban all fighting. Whether it is the upright blows to the head or the crashing of heads to the ice, Stuart said, “Those forces acting on the brain are alarmingly high.” Joining him in the call was Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden, who declared, “Science has responded to the game on the ice. Now it’s time for the game to respond to the science.”

The game should respond to the science with automatic ejections, suspensions, and major fines for players who fight on the ice. Fighting is banned in American collegiate hockey and in youth hockey leagues in North America. It is time for the professionals to follow suit.

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