No, the late Don Sanderson should not be turned into a martyr for the anti-fighting crowd.
On the basis of what we know, he might well have been the first guy to say that fighting was part of the game, and that he knew what he was getting into that fateful Dec. 12 night while playing for the Whitby Dunlops. He died earlier today, and his family, one imagines, wouldn’t want to see his memory manipulated for the purposes of anyone’s political agenda.
At the same time, however, it would be equally wrong to pretend for the sake of the pro-fighting constituency out there that this was somehow just an accident that was unavoidable and could happen to anyone who laces up a pair of skates.
We cannot simply ignore the terrible truth that a young man has been killed in a hockey fight, that hockey violence has claimed a life.
Moreover, while Sanderson was not an NHL player or even a major junior player, this was also not an incident from a men’s beer league.
This was serious, organized hockey, and at 21 years of age, Sanderson was a young man who probably still harbored hopes of being able to continue to play the game he loved.
Here’s what we know.
Fighting in hockey causes all kinds of injuries, and the injuries are becoming more serious as the combatants become bigger and stronger.
It’s a dangerous part of the game. Some argue that danger is a necessary element to keep the game safe, a warped, tortured logic I’ve never bought into.
Given that Sanderson played in a league in which fighters receive game misconducts, however, it’s important to note that the fight in which he was involved took place even though both players knew they’d be tossed from the game.
People like me have argued that should be the rule in the NHL. But it was a rule that didn’t change Sanderson’s fate.
Accidents do happen, and this was certainly to a significant degree an accident. Neither Sanderson nor his opponent in the fight believed this would be the outcome.
But the more fighting you allow, the more chance there is for such a tragedy to occur. That’s just a fact.
Right now, the NHL seems to be going in the opposite direction from clamping down on bare-knuckle brawling, seemingly encouraging more of it, with fighting stats markedly increased in recent seasons.
The argument that fighting is an indispensable element of hockey has been proven wrong over and over and over, and it’s being proven wrong again this week at the world junior championships.
It’s not necessary. People just want it, and they are loud about their passion for it. Every Saturday night, Canada’s most famous hockey personality outside of Wayne Gretzky, Don Cherry, champions the art of fighting on skates. Just last week he was praising those players who take off their helmets during fights, which really increases the threat of serious injury since most fights end with the two combatants falling heavily to the ice.
The elephant in the room has always been that someone would suffer a life-changing injury from a hockey fight, or that someone would die.
The death of Don Sanderson, then, is a warning to all of us involved in hockey.
That warning can either be heeded, with steps taken to make sure the chances of someone getting in a hockey fight, losing his helmet and then being crashed down head first onto the ice are as small as possible.
Or the warning can be ignored, and we can all just sit around and hope against hope it never happens again.