Don Cherry, every hockey fan’s favourite bombastic promoter of on-ice fisticuffs, will undoubtedly dislike the thesis of CBC journalist Jeremy Allingham’s new book: to protect players’ brains and to focus more on skills, fighting can and should be removed from hockey with a few simple rule changes involving multiple-game suspensions for frequent pugilists. Allingham relates the stories of three former “enforcers” – James McEwan, Stephen Peat, and Dale Purinton – and their off-ice struggles with symptoms suggestive of the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In so doing, the author makes the case that fighting in hockey is so normalized, and at such a young age, that players may be risking their health and, in some cases, their lives.
McEwan, Peat, and Purinton are described as battling pain, anger, severe mood swings, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety – along with related self-medication via alcohol and/or drugs – in their post-hockey lives. Stories such as these are sad and all too common but are often dismissed as just “part of the game,” as per hockey’s macho code, reinforced by Cherry every Saturday to millions of viewers of Hockey Night in Canada. While the number of fights in hockey is trending downward, Allingham argues, nobody at the highest levels of the National Hockey League is in a hurry to eliminate fighting altogether, especially when fans go bananas any time the gloves come off.
This book comes eight years after the tragic summer of 2011, during which NHL heavyweights Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak all died before the age of 35. The NHL steadfastly refuses to acknowledge a connection between hockey and CTE, but the evidence is mounting and the debate is far from over.
For hockey nerds or fans who follow hockey fighters, this is a worthwhile glimpse into the personal lives of on-ice brawlers. The chapter on the history of violence in junior and pro hockey is illuminating, but the book is unlikely to move the dial on the debate. People who like fighting in hockey and those who want it banned seem as polarized as ever, and if a player’s only route to the NHL is via his fists, he’s going to use them if he’s at all allowed.