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Deaths of enforcers invite real scrutiny
Jen Floyd Engel got an up-close look at what a hockey fight is like.Courtesy Jen Floyd Engel
The photos are from a couple of years ago when, on a whim, I strapped on my hockey skates for a column about enforcers. I have always enjoyed the role fighting plays in the game, defended its place, as well as those who do it. The idea was to learn the art of necessary violence while also introducing these oft-misunderstood athletes.
Barch laughed the whole time as he told stories of absorbing right hooks and delivering TKOs, or at least that is how I remembered it — or how I did until last week, when news surfaced that affable and funny NHL enforcer Wade Belak had reportedly killed himself.
His is the third tragic death of an enforcer this summer, and now my memory of that day with Barch feels fuzzy.
Maybe Barch had not been laughing at all. Maybe he was angry at my giddy enthusiasm regarding what basically amounts to premeditated blows to his head.
Maybe, as now-retired Georges Laraque acknowledged recently, he hates what he does — the punching, the emotional toll, the stress — but does it anyway because it is his only ticket into the league.
Maybe I had been wrong about fighting all along.
So I called Barch, and I waited.
The thing about fighting in hockey is that everybody already had an opinion, and now everybody really has an opinion. The deaths of these men has given a soapbox to those with an agenda, who may casually relate this to concussions or how the league handles former players or fighting. Mostly fighting.
Non-hockey types have never understood why a real sport would intermittently stop for a brawl. Many friends have told me they would never watch as long as there was fighting. More than a few will not watch without it.
The allure of the fight is self-evident, much like the appeal of the crash at the Indy 500 or the vicious hit in the NFL. We love it. It also serves a role. Hockey is a game in which teams protect their own, where the mere specter of certain players helps protect the stars. The enforcers are almost universally the best guys in the league, and Belak by all accounts was one of those guys — funny and well liked.
I have known Modano — the highest-scoring American-born player in NHL history — for 10-plus years. He is one of the most laid-back, irreverent, unflappable athletes I have dealt with. But after a sad summer that has seen Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien all die tragically, Modano sounded shaken.
“I am,” he said. “My initial reaction was shocked, and then you think about their families, and then you think it’s not worth it. It’s absolutely not worth it.”
The greatest American-born hockey player in the history of ever — a guy who only weeks ago had been hoping to catch on and play another season — was talking very much like a guy who is leaning toward retiring now because of a guy he did not know all that well and who played a completely different role on the ice.
“It has changed my thinking a little,” Modano admitted. “You hear about the football guys retiring with dementia, and those guys (the hockey enforcers), every day they are just pounding fist to head. They are usually the body checkers. They are probably getting the brunt of it. ...”
Modano has been in two hockey fights in his life.
He started neither. He dreaded both. He lost both. He has had plenty of concussions, though, a couple of which happened before “getting your bell rung” was taken seriously — when it was seen as something real hockey players gutted out and played through. He says he is “kind of scared about what we do not know” regarding the potential long-term effects of head injuries.
Modano was careful not to link Belak’s suicide with head injuries or fighting and admits he does not know whether it should be banned. What he does know is that a lot of players he talks to are scared to find out.
“It is one thing to write about the tough-guy position in the NHL and stressors involved,” Dallas Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk said. “But is this what is causing guys to take their own lives? I don’t know if there is a correlation. But I know what is going to happen — people are going to write articles and talk about fighting in the NHL, and it is a slippery slope.”
Nieuwendyk played in the league for a long time and has played with one of the best tough guys in the business in Tim Hunter. So he is in no way discounting the stressors, or the toll. He talked about watching the anguish on former teammate Bill Huard’s face on days when he knew he was going to have to fight Tony Twist or somebody like him.
“We all knew, but you don’t want to say too much. It’s a tough role,” Nieuwendyk said. “There (are) a lot of questions, and who knows for sure what the answers are? I don’t know.”
Neither do I. And this is much too serious to glibly throw out solutions.
In his book “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell says “there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis,” and that applies here.
So it is impossible to dismiss, impossible to go on watching fights and not wonder about the implications.
In 15 years, it will be impossible to ask, “How could we know?”
The answer is, “How could we not?”
It is what I wanted to ask Barch, but, when he eventually called, he said he’d rather not talk about any of the recent tragedies or speculate as to why. And who can blame him? This is how he earns a living in the league, by fighting when necessary, by doing the very thing many are speculating was the “why” in the tragic deaths of Belak, Boogaard and Rypien.
And all I know for sure is I can not look at that picture the same anymore.