By Left Field
(ISN) The tragic death of another former hockey player with a penchant for throwing punches should be a wake-up call for the National Hockey League. Steve Montador, who was pronounced dead at his home in Mississauga, Ontario, played 571 games in the NHL for six different teams. He will be remembered as a stay at home defenceman who never backed away from backing up his teammates, whatever the price he paid. His career came to an unceremonious conclusion in 2012 after a severe concussion, the worst of several that plagued his playing days.
Montador, who was suffering from depression, was in the process of suing the NHL over the damage he incurred playing a game that allows you to throw down the gauntlets and hammer an opponent’s head with your fists. Montador, 35, answered the bell whenever he was called out or called upon with a frequency that friends and family swear took a toll on his life. He donated his battered brain to science in the hope that it will help others who suffer multiple concussions playing the sport with a passion he exhibited on and off the ice. Montador is not the first player who played the role of enforcer to meet a tragic or untimely demise and sadly, he won’t be the last. Let’s pray for the sake of his unborn child that his passing prompts the league to enter into a protracted proactive discussion about whether the time has come to hit the reset button on the question of whether fighting still has a place in the game.
Back in the ’50s and ’60s, teams needed a player who would step up when the other other team crossed the line by mugging a star player in an attempt to intimidate the skill out of the game. There was a need for players like Montreal Canadiens left winger John Ferguson because although the Habs would win a Sunday night tilt in the old Boston Gardens, the bigger, badder Bruins exacted a price that often left the team that defeated them black and blue. Ferguson, who could take a regular shift and occasionally pop in 20 goals, literally obliterated other teams’ bullying tactics because he was arguably the most feared fighter of his era.
Things changed for the worst when the Philadelphia Flyers, aka the Broad Street Bullies, pummelled their way to two Stanley Cups in 1974 and ’75. Other teams were quick to emulate the Flyers black and blueprint by adding three or four players that were more skilled with their fists than their sticks, players more concerned with scoring TKOs than goals. No one gave as much as a second thought to what long-term damage was inflicted on the game or the players who filled that role as long as the wins rolled in.
When Montreal finished off the Flyers in 1976 for the first of four Cups in a row, it dulled the urge to fight your way to the championship and returned the focus to skill, although even the Canadiens’ roster was peppered with players who could throw them when required.
I still believe there is a place for fighting, as mixed as my feelings may be after Montador’s passing. A recent game between the Habs and Leafs underscored that. Toronto forward David Clarkson, no doubt riled by being one of the league’s biggest busts and highest-paid healthy scratches smashed Montreal defenceman Sergei Gonchar face first into the glass. Nathan Beaulieu, 22, a promising young Habs player not known for his physical play, jumped in and started throwing punches in retaliation for the hit on his 40-plus defence partner and on and off the ice mentor. If that’s taken out of the game, there’s many solid arguments to be made that it will lead to more sickening stick work and the kind of horrific hits from behind that result in much more severe damage.
Maybe the best way for the NHL to go for now is to continue with the way the game is headed, where the gladiators and their roles are already on the decline. The league must start handing out stiffer punishment for checks and hits and sticks that inflict frightening, ferocious damage so the offenders will actually think about the consequences while they deal with a 20-game suspension and the loss of a quarter of their yearly earnings. It’s time to eliminate the staged fights that occur far too frequently by suspending players who rarely get on the ice anyway that agree to drop ’em and sock ’em immediately after a face off to “send a message” or “change the momentum” or “provide a spark.” That would reduce the number of concussions immediately, and honour people like Steve Montador by making a positive fist-free impact on the game he so loved to play.