Despite his tough-guy image, crusty exterior, and wit sharper than a skate blade, Bruins forward/enforcer Shawn Thornton is one of the genuine nice-guy athletes in this town.
The Black-and-Gold’s resident ruffian, Thornton got his bell rung in his last fight, a slugfest with Buffalo Sabres heavyweight John Scott during a 7-4 Boston loss Jan. 31. Thornton suffered a concussion facing the 6-foot-8-inch, 270-pound brawler who lands far more blows than shots on goal.
The Bruins are scheduled to face the Sabres Sunday night in Buffalo, and Bruins fans will want retribution, blood, and maybe a pound of Scott’s flesh. If Thornton is cleared to play, justice will likely ride on his knuckles. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
The NHL should.
In this age of acute concussion awareness, it’s time for the NHL to KO fighting. Pucks pacifism won’t be popular with the paying customers or players like Thornton, but that’s a small price to pay to protect the brains of NHL players.
I’m not anti-fighting. I’m just anti-brain damage.
With all researchers have discovered about the link between repeated blows to the head of athletes and their deleterious long-term effects on the brain, it would seem self-evident that writing off taking punches as an occupational hazard is sporting negligence.
Claiming it’s tradition, necessary in the name of hockey canon or for entertainment value is justifying, not justification.
The NHL has worked assiduously through Rule 48 to try to prevent heat-seeking, head-hunting hits. Yet, there remains a hole in its logic big enough for a Zamboni to drive through in condoning combatants bashing each other with bare fists.
Researchers at Boston University found chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degeneration of the tissue of the brain, in deceased NHL brawlers Bob Probert and Derek Boogaard. Two other former pugilists, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien, died in 2011 by suicide or apparent suicide, like former NFL players and CTE suffers Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, and Ray Easterling.
“I shudder every time I think of Shawn Thornton,” said Dr. Robert Cantu, the co-director of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. “The highest rate of CTE is in boxers and then the NFL. If you’re an NHL enforcer and you’re involved in hockey and you’re involved in fighting, you’re going to suffer more head trauma.”
Not unexpectedly, Thornton, who said he has three career concussions, thinks taking fighting out of hockey is like taking oxygen out of the air.
Thornton pointed out that if the NHL is really concerned about concussions, then it should take a look at some of the medieval armor masquerading as shoulder pads worn by today’s NHL players. Fair point, Mr. Merlot.
Fighting won’t go down without a fight. It is ingrained in the culture of the NHL. Violence and vulcanized rubber go together like malls and credit cards.
Every dedicated hockey fan knows what a Gordie Howe hat trick is: the holy trinity of scoring a goal, netting an assist, and getting in a fight in the same game.
Guys who specialized in this while wearing the Spoked-B — guys like Terry O’Reilly and Cam Neely — have their numbers hanging in the rafters of TD Garden. Knuckles, guts, and glory are a Boston hockey tradition.
“There’s fighting in hockey,” said Thornton. “It’s in the game. I think it’s a necessary part of the game. Listen, I’m a big boy. I know what I’m getting into. I’m fine.”
According to hockeyfights.com, Thornton was in 20 bouts last season, tying Brandon Prust for the league lead. Thornton said that, including junior hockey and the minors, he has had close to 400 fights.
“I’m not there yet,” said Thornton, when asked about post-career cranial concerns. “To be quite honest with you, in my job it would be absolute poison to think of that stuff going in. I’d end up getting more hurt if I was doing my job afraid of every little thing that could happen. I try to block everything out. Like I said, you could get hit walking across the street.”
There is the argument that removing fighting would make the NHL less safe, the notion that without the frozen frontier justice provided by enforcers, dirty players would take head shots and cheap shots with impunity.
Yet, that already happened with fighting. (See: Cooke, Matt and Torres, Raffi.)
It was the adoption of a disciplinary protocol that has little tolerance for their antics that slowed recidivists like Cooke and Torres.
The potential loss of their careers had a greater impact on their behavior than the potential loss of blood.
The absence of fighting would mean the loss of opportunity for certain types of players. Thornton, a grit-and-grind fourth liner, said that, without fighting, he wouldn’t have made it to the NHL.
“Not a chance,” said Thornton. “My first two years, I wouldn’t have been on any AHL team if I couldn’t take care of that business. I had to work very hard to turn myself into a player that could contribute outside of fighting.”
Thornton evolved. Others can, too.
Cantu said that, ultimately, the NHL will be compelled to do away with fighting.
“In my opinion, they’re just turning their eyes away from a problem they don’t want to address right now,” he said. “Eventually, they’ll address it. They’ve done a pretty good job of addressing the concussion issues in the NHL.”
Nothing motivates a professional sports league like the potential loss of money, not even the potential loss of employees’ health.
To drop dropping the gloves, it would probably take what it took for the NFL to find concussion religion: the threat of litigation.
That’s one fight that could leave the NHL with a headache.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.