I think I went to my first hockey game before I went to my first horse race. I think my father took me to Madison Square Garden to see the Rangers when I was four years old; I remember being at Saratoga Harness with my parents and my brother when I was six. It’s possible that both of those memories a little off.
I think I was in Saratoga in July of 1975 and I think I watched on television the match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure. I think.
And I think that I stopped watching horse racing then for a long time because I was crushed by what happened to the girl horse. I know that I stopped watching racing for a long time, and I think that’s why.
I never really liked hockey fights, but I accepted them. As I got older, as I went to games more frequently, I began to cringe when the gloves got dropped. I could appreciate the theater of the fight, and I never really believed that anyone got hurt, but the reaction of the crowd – atavistic, bloodthirsty, primitive – horrified me, frightened me, repulsed me. I sat while the others stood, but I didn’t protest. I never really believed that anyone got hurt.
Breakdowns on the racetrack are not the commonplace, casually accepted occurrence they once were. Tracks and industries have spent millions on surfaces designed to reduce catastrophic breakdowns; fallen horses, low-level claimers or Grade 1 winners, are honored on websites and Twitter and Facebook.
Fighting in the National Hockey League was once considered as sacrosanct as the dirt track at Keeneland. A practice limited to the North American professional league, outlawed in intercollegiate, European, and international play, fighting was part of our game. It actually prevented injury, its supporters reasoned, by keeping the players honest, by keeping the violence overt and controlled.
And then Sidney Crosby got a concussion that kept him off the ice for nearly a year. And then three enforcers, three tough guys, three players who had an NHL career because they could fight, died within months of each other. Their deaths, depression, accidental overdose, suicide are linked, not conclusively, to the head injuries and concussions they suffered in their fights on the ice. The physical toll their jobs took on them was evident; the psychological toll was hidden. Tough guys don’t get depressed. Tough guys don’t say they don’t feel well. Their jobs depend on stoicism, bravado, audacity.
This weekend the New York Times began running a three-part series on the life and death of Derek Boogaard, the enforcer who last played with the New York Rangers, the man beloved by fans, the man committed to the charity Defending the Blue Line, which provides tickets to hockeys game for children in military families.
The articles are a heartbreaking look at the physical and emotional toll of growing up dying to play hockey and realizing that the only way to get to the NHL is with your fists. It’s an indictment of a system that allows huge, strong men to beat each other on the head because it’s part of the game.
The spotlight on head injuries in hockey is not unlike the spotlight cast on racing when Barbaro got hurt, when Eight Belles died. That attention led to positive changes in the game; vigilant fans and organizations insist that the spotlight stay bright.
I never objected to fighting in hockey because I didn’t believe that anyone really got hurt. Incontrovertible evidence shows that that’s not true. Hockey has no choice: it can’t allow hits to the head any longer. The toll it takes is too high. And if you can’t allow hits to the head, you can’t allow fighting. Period.
Injuries will never be eliminated in hockey or in horse racing. Any sport involving strong, heavy athletes moving at high speeds has inherent risks, and accidents are going to happen. But when you know, when you KNOW, that damage can be avoided, you have to do something about it. Racing still has a lot of work to do, but at least it accepted it had a problem and began to address it. Hockey, it’s your turn.
Part 1 in New York Times series on Derek Boogaard: “A Boy Learns to Brawl”
Part 2 in New York Times series on Derek Boogaard: “Blood on the Ice”
Part 3 in New York Times series on Derek Boogaard: “A Brain ‘Going Bad’“