Hockey defends code to the death

By Dave Kreiger
Updated: January 24, 2009

COLORADO — Last weekend, several thousand hockey fans filled the Iroquois Park Sports Centre in Whitby, Ontario, to say goodbye to Don Sanderson, an amateur hockey player who also coached a youth girls’ team with his dad.

More than anything, Mike Sanderson said, his son wanted to be a hockey coach.

They raised to the rafters the No. 40 jersey Sanderson wore for the Whitby Dunlops, a senior AAA Ontario Hockey Association team. The full house gave the young defenseman his last standing ovation.

“He was unique, extraordinary, irreplaceable,” said Steve Cardwell, president of the team, according to the account in The Oshawa Express.

“We will miss you, Don, more than words can say,” his mother, Dahna, said through tears.

Don Sanderson was 21. He died as the result of a fistfight in a hockey game.

The Dunlops were playing the Brantford Blast at the Brantford Civic Center on Dec. 12 when Sanderson got into it with Blast forward Corey Fulton. His helmet came off. Both players fell, which is not uncommon when people try to fight while on skates. Sanderson’s head smacked the ice.

He underwent brain surgery the next day and remained in a coma for three weeks. He died Jan. 2.

Perhaps now we will get an answer to the question posed in the wake of the Todd Bertuzzi assault on Steve Moore in 2004 that ended Moore’s NHL career: Does somebody have to die to end sanctioned fighting in hockey?

I say perhaps because the NHL has an out here. Sanderson was not an NHL player. The game in which he was injured was not an NHL game. NHL officials can skate through this loophole if they choose. Already, the Ontario Hockey Association seems to have decided the lesson is players must try to keep their helmets on when they fight.

But the morality of this issue is beginning to weigh on some NHL traditionalists. The NHL’s senior vice president and director of hockey operations, Colin Campbell, has added the subject to the agenda for the general managers’ meetings in March.

Two years ago, a similar effort was shouted down by the same people who have always contended that fighting is part of hockey’s tradition, that it acts as a deterrent to cheap shots, that it is a necessary emotional release valve in a violent sport.

Commissioner Gary Bettman, a New York lawyer with no background in the game before he was recruited to run the league nearly 16 years ago, could have been the outside voice of reason to challenge these justifications. Instead, he chose the opposite tack.

“The reason that I have said that it has been a part of the game and I envision it will continue to be is because if you’re close to the game and you understand the game and you see how it’s played, you realize it’s a small part of the game and it’s a game that in many respects is physical like football, but it tends to be played a little bit differently,” Bettman told me a little more than a year ago.

“It’s basically nonstop action, so it’s not five or six seconds of physical play and then 30 to 35 seconds of cooling down. This is a game that’s fast, it’s edgy, it’s emotional. The players are skating at each other at speeds of 30 miles an hour and they’re carrying sticks. And so the notion that occasionally, and it doesn’t happen all the time, there’s going to be a fight in the version that’s intended to be as physical as ours is, is something that I think goes to the balance of the game.”

When I asked him why it’s not a part of Olympic hockey or college hockey, where, as in most sports, a player is automatically ejected for fighting, he said those teams don’t develop the rivalries NHL teams do, or play as often.

“There’s less fighting in the playoffs, where the notion of the consequences, the penalties and the like, may discourage it,” he noted. “There’s more emphasis on skill.”

So fighting is only necessary in games that matter less? This makes no sense.

We have batted these arguments back and forth for years, and more often since Bertuzzi’s assault on Moore. From here, the argument that hockey players get mad and therefore should be allowed to interrupt their games for intermittent fistfights rings of adolescent rationalization. Players in other sports get mad, too. Until those sports instituted draconian penalties, players in those sports fought, too.

When a player is ejected and then suspended for 15 games, as Carmelo Anthony was in December 2006 following a brawl at Madison Square Garden, it tends to have a deterrent effect. Anthony has not been in an NBA fight since.

For hockey, now comes the moral imperative of Don Sanderson. The awful “what if” has come to pass. A young man has suffered a preventable death because of this hockey tradition.

Still, a “flash survey” by Canada’s TSN in the wake of Sanderson’s death found that of 18 NHL general managers who responded, not one favored automatic ejection for fighting. In fact, five favored eliminating the instigator rule, which could lead to more fighting.

Evidently, this is the answer to the question. What happens if someone dies? Maybe a rule against loosening the chin strap on your helmet.