Silver Donald Cameron

Disgracing Our National Game

January 11, 2009

When I was eleven, all I wanted was to be Max Bentley, “The Dipsy-Doodle Dandy from Delisle.”

Bentley belonged to an extraordinary family of five hockey players from Delisle, Saskatchewan. Three Bentleys made the NHL, and two – Max and Doug – made the Hall of Fame. Max was a star centre with the mighty Toronto Maple Leafs, Stanley Cup winners in four years out of five. A magnificent stick-handler and play-maker, Max was NHL scoring champion two years running.

But how could I become an ice-hockey star in Vancouver, a city with no ice? Instead, our gang played on the street with roller skates clamped to our shoes. We wore shin-pads, hockey gloves and Maple Leaf sweaters. We were Max Bentley, Syl Apps, Teeder Kennedy, Turk Broda, the greatest team on earth.

And if we got hurt, so what? One time I fell and broke a front tooth on the concrete. The dentist treated it the following Saturday. That afternoon, Billy Weeks took a swipe at the puck. His stick glanced off mine, and flew into my face. There went my other front tooth.

It was, absolutely, an accident. Billy was aghast. We never, ever fought, for the excellent reason that if we did, the gang would disperse and the game would be over, perhaps permanently. Unthinkable.

I no longer follow hockey, but I retain a visceral love for it. But the death of 21-year-old Don Sanderson after an on-ice fight heats up a simmering disgust dating back at least to Todd Bertuzzi’s vicious attack on Steve Moore in March, 2004.

Enough, already. Enough. If you want to play hockey, emulate masters like Bentley or Gretzky. If you want to fight, become boxers.

Yes, I know that hockey players have always fought. Four players apparently died in 1904 alone, and numerous others have been killed, crippled or disabled over the years. In one notorious incident in 1933, Boston’s Eddie Shore hit Leafs’ star Ace Bailey hard from behind, smacking his head on the ice, fracturing his skull and ending his career. Todd Bertuzzi did the same for Steve Moore five years ago.

So hockey violence has a long tradition. So what? Bear-baiting once was groovy. Christians vs Lions was boffo entertainment in imperial Rome. In 1840, the founder of this newspaper, Joseph Howe, settled an argument by duelling. Should that fact help me if I shoot a critic this afternoon?

Fighting is not, as some of its defenders claim, just a natural outcome of rough, fast sports. It’s not tolerated in college hockey, in European hockey or in other contact sports like football and soccer. After the 1920s, hockey mayhem apparently declined until the league expanded in the 1960s, so we didn’t hear much about fighting in Foster Hewitt’s wonderful radio broadcasts of the 1940s. The six-team NHL of the 1940s only had room for players who could skate, stick-handle, pass and score. A swollen NHL could accommodate louts who specialized in bruising and bashing.

Don Sanderson’s death is being blamed on bad luck, and on the fact that his helmet popped off during that fatal fight. Again, so what? If you go to rob a corner store and the proprietor winds up dead, you’re guilty of murder even if you didn’t really mean to snuff him. Sanderson didn’t fall on the ice by accident. He fell in the course of a fistfight. No fight, no death.

The NHL could readily put an end to this. In 1927, Boston’s Billy Coutu attacked a referee, and the NHL expelled him for life. Bravo. The courts could help, too. Todd Bertuzzi’s sentence for assault was a conditional discharge and a year’s probation. If he had maimed someone in a tavern, would he have escaped the slammer?

And if all else fails, Parliament could pass a simple amendment to the Criminal Code providing that anyone committing a criminal offence during a sports competition would be banned from organized sports in Canada for 10 years. Let Todd Bertuzzi play in Anaheim or Pittsburgh – but not in Calgary or Ottawa. That would quickly reduce his value.

This is our elegant national game. The goons dishonour it. We have every right to stop them – and we should.

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