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Final straw: After near tragedy, junior hockey must stop the fight

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer


The NHL likely won't ban fighting soon, but junior hockey leagues should. (USATSI)
The NHL likely won't ban fighting soon, but junior hockey leagues should. (USATSI)

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It was a night like any other in the United States Hockey League, the top junior A circuit in the country. Two teams playing a tight-checking, fast, physical hockey game in front of a modest, but boisterous crowd at Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Ice Arena on Saturday night. As the halfway point of the second period approached, a play that happens many times over the course of a junior hockey season erupted in a fight between two players from the Dubuque Fighting Saints and Cedar Rapids RoughRiders.

There was no pre-fight dance, no removal of helmets, just gloves and fists flying in a heat-of-the-moment act of aggression. Then everything changed.

As Cedar Rapids forward Corey Petrash and Saints defenseman Dylan Chanter traded blows, Chanter's helmet flew off his head. Within seconds, the tustle went to the ground and Chanter's head struck the ice with force. The crowd roared as the 18-year-old Chanter lay motionless. Then he started moving. The crowd's cheers quieted to hushed tones throughout the arena.

Chanter was having a seizure on top of the ice. The defenseman convulsed for what witnesses say was about two minutes. Chanter was rushed to a local hospital and later air-lifted to the University of Iowa hospitals where he would see a neurologist. The game was suspended as a result of the horrifying scene on the ice.

Chanter was released from the hospital that same night, which is hard to believe considering what had happened just hours earlier. As the hockey world feared the worst for the 18-year-old Armstrong, B.C., native, he tweeted that he was awake and OK. A relief, but hardly comforting after what unfolded earlier that evening.

Dylan Chanter is a lucky man. Lucky he wasn't injured worse, perhaps lucky to be alive.

Don Sanderson (Whitby Dunlops)

Four years ago, Don Sanderson wasn't as lucky. The Ontario senior league player lost his helmet in a skirmish, before engaging in a fight that would eventually lead to his death. Sanderson's bare head struck the ice. The 21-year-old fell into a coma and later died.

Accidents happen. However, the accidents involving Chanter and Sanderson both were preventable, both needless regardless of what the rules say. Neither Chanter nor Anderson were playing for big pay checks or were responsible for protecting a highly-paid skill player. They were fighting because the leagues in which they played allow it and tempers flared. Is it worth it?

Players in junior hockey don't get paid beyond a weekly stipend in major junior and less than that in junior A, in order for those players to retain NCAA eligibility. These kids aren't playing for money, they're playing for the opportunity to advance their careers. There are few guarantees.

They play for that opportunity at a high risk. Unlike the NHL, where the league is primarily made up of full-grown men, junior leagues are made up of kids. With players ages 16-20, there is at times a large discrepancy in physical maturity and strength.

The risk of accidents like the ones involving Chanter and Sanderson is scary, but hardly the only reason for junior leagues to act now. According to concussion experts, a teenage player's brain is still developing and is part of the reason they cannot sustain the same blow an adult can. This is far from a reactionary debate.

In a 2011 interview with the Boston Globe, Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the leading neurologists studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at Boston University, explained why teenagers were at a higher risk for brain injury:

Younger brains are not as myelinated, meaning they have less insulation than brains of adults. Also, boys' necks are weaker than those of adults. Their heads are disproportionately large for their bodies.

"That sets up a younger person to have injuries to the brain that are greater than those sustained at a later age from the same force,'' Cantu said. "It takes more force later on to produce the same injury.

"It's important not to have a head injury at any age. It's particularly important not to have it at a young age. Fighting is certainly to be discouraged, especially at young ages, for those reasons.''

As the fear around CTE grows, especially after the documentary League of Denial aired on PBS, hockey needs to take a closer look as a whole.

Derek Boogaard was an enforcer in the NHL, but his life as a fighter began at 16 in the Western Hockey League, as detailed in a lengthy New York Times feature on the late enforcer. After his death due to an accidental overdose, Boogaard's brain was examined by the doctors at Boston University. They discovered Stage 2 CTE. There are four stages.

According to the Times piece, doctors were alarmed that the CTE was so advanced for a man that was just 28 years old at the time of his death. The doctors told Boogaard's family that had he lived, he likely would have slipped into dementia – a common side effect of CTE as observed in former NFL players – by middle age.

Derek Boogaard accrued 670 penalty minutes in the WHL over four seasons. He was punching and getting punched regularly during his formative years. Players don't have to get repeated concussions to build up CTE in the brain, repeated head trauma alone can have damaging effects.

The incident in Cedar Rapids also comes on the heels of an emphatic call from researchers to ban fighting at all levels of hockey at the Mayo Clinic's Hockey Concussion Summit II, which was held last week in Rochester, Minn.

The event, which was attended by leading concussion researchers, supplied evidence upon evidence of the ill effects of head trauma in hockey, including that which is tied to fighting. One of the doctors presented the slides of Boogaard's brain.

Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden was also at the summit.

“Science has responded to the game on the ice," Dryden said to the attendees, according to the New York Times. "Now it's time for the game to respond to the science."

We know that the NHL is slow to make a change and fighting's place in the league certainly seems secure for now. However, the urgency with which junior leagues need to act remains unchanged. The decision makers in those leagues hold in their hands the future of young players. Both USA Hockey and Hockey Canada, which junior leagues operate under, share that responsibility as well.

The party line in junior hockey, in particular, is since fighting is part of the pro game, it's a part of the game they have to prepare their players for. To a degree, they are right, but the responsibility of junior hockey entities is different now. The ages of the players is an important factor, or at least it should be.

It is also important to note that college hockey, which has helped develop over 30 percent of the players on NHL opening-night rosters this year, does not allow fighting. Any fight that does occur, and they're extremely rare, is followed with a game ejection and suspension and the players in that league are, on average, older.

There are certainly dangers and risks whenever there is fighting, but if it is going to exist at all, then let it survive in a league where players are adequately compensated for the risks they take on. Not at a time when both their careers and lives are in front of them.

Most fighters won't make the jump from junior to the NHL right away anyway. They spend time developing their “skill” in the minors, while receiving a paycheck.

In the wake of Chanter's injury and subsequent fallout, the USHL released a lengthy statement Monday saying, among other things, it will take measures to review the incident, the current rules and how to further curtail dangerous play. Perhaps that will lead the league down a path to taking a stronger stance on fighting.

Both the USHL and particularly the Ontario Hockey League, a Canadian major junior outfit, have taken measures in recent years to curtail fighting. For instance, both require helmets to be left on during fights. The OHL has implemented a graduated scale of suspensions based on the number of fights a player is involved in, which has significantly dropped the number of fights.

As great as limiting fighting is, it all stops just short in the face of medical evidence that their players are at greater risk for head injuries, which in turn makes them more vulnerable to head injuries later in life. Junior leagues can't afford to go halfway.

Eliminating fighting in junior hockey is complicated, though.

Junior teams are primarily located in smaller towns. In the USHL, many of its teams are spread out through the Midwest in blue-collar communities. For many fans within the league, the hockey learning curve is a little steep. A lot of those folks may not understand icing, but everyone gets fighting.

In Canada, it is a similar situation, with teams located in smaller towns, but in areas where hockey is more ingrained in the community. That includes fighting as being a big part of the hockey culture.

The fear is that taking away fighting may take away some of the fan interest.

As for-profit businesses, junior hockey teams – like all businesses – must make money to survive. This is why the solution to the fighting debate in junior hockey is far from simple.

Even knowing that, the science really cannot be ignored any longer.

So often the retort to people against fighting is “Have you ever played the game?” It's understandable, but to answer that question with another: “Have you ever practiced medicine?”

There's a reason that the most respected doctors in the field want to see fighting come to an end. It's not because they think it's barbaric or because it's aesthetically displeasing to people of certain sensibilities. It's unhealthy, moreso for teenagers.

Dr. Michael Stuart, whose son Mark is a defenseman for the Winnipeg Jets and a player who does not shy away from a scrap, is co-director of Mayo Clinic's sports medicine department and the chief medical officer for USA Hockey. He has two other sons that have played professionally and comes not only from the point of a hockey parent, but also from years of practice and research.

Dylan Chanter (Twitter)

“Blows to the head from fists, and hitting your head on the ice from an unprotected fall with or without a helmet, can result in catastrophic injury or even death,” Stuart told the New York Times in a story about the USHL incident. “The time to stop fighting in junior hockey is now.”

As much respect as those who have been in the game and played have earned, including Bobby Orr who wrote in his new book that he wants to see fighting remain in the professional levels and major junior, they either haven't seen the research or simply don't care.

The NHL is not going to take action on this anytime soon. Junior hockey leagues can't afford to wait.

Junior leagues have cracked down on checks to the head, but don't punish fights as severely. They can't legislate injuries or accidents out of a game, but they can take away a higher-risk play by cracking down on fighting. Eliminating even that one element of risk would seem to go a long way.

What happened to Dylan Chanter will happen again. An 18-year-old player, with a college commitment to the University of New Hampshire, NHL Draft eligibility and a dream, should not have his night end seizing on the ice.

The next time could be worse. The next time is preventable. This was the final straw. The time is now to stop the fight.

 
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