10/13/2011 02:48 EDT | Updated 12/13/2011 05:12 EST

Don Cherry and Hockey Fights Are Just Part of the Game


Are fights necessary in hockey -- or at least NHL games -- to attract fans?

Or should fighting be banned as dangerous, dehumanizing and unnecessary, as many now insist?

This age-old issue has resurfaced thanks to Don Cherry's provocative remarks at the start of this year's NHL season that upset three former NHL "enforcers" who've come out against hockey violence and linked head injuries to things like alcoholism, drugs and, for all one knows, bed-wetting.

Frankly, I'm never very clear on what Cherry has said after he says it. He makes his point at the time, but it gets muddy in the recalling and re-telling. I'm puzzled at why he was scathing towards the three former enforcers he named, all of who seem genuinely miffed (even puzzled) at Cherry's broadside.

Three NHL tough guys have died recently -- two suicides and one drug overdose.

And that, rightly, has increased the concern over head injuries in hockey, especially concussions, which we now know (and didn't know before) can last a long time and can be very dangerous if they happen repeatedly.

Some people are more prone to concussions than others, so it's pretty hard to justify head shots, or anything that might damage the brain.

Hockey enforcers have been used to intimidate others -- or even protect marquee players from rival goons. Wayne Gretzky owes much to the protection provided by Marty McSorley when both were with the Los Angeles Kings.

Hockey has changed since the days of the enforcer -- faster and better. But every team has tough guys on the ice, most of whom are also gifted players.

None of this justifies or rationalizes the danger of concussions.

But don't confuse concussions, head shots, or cheap shots with fighting.

It could be argued that few things are less dangerous than a hockey fight.

The combatants are padded to the hilt, have poor leverage on skates, they take off their gloves, wail away at each others' helmets with bare fists, pull the sweater while holding the other guy's arm, and are eventually parted and sent to the penalty box.

The crowd loves it, and little harm is done.

Damage occurs if someone's head crashes heavily on the ice -- be the head encased in a helmet or not. But that's relatively rare. Concussions to Eric Lindros and Sidney Crosby were not from fights, but in checks -- legal or otherwise.

The untimely deaths of three ex-NHL enforcers is reason enough to examine the phenomenon of head injuries. These happen in other sports too -- none of which are as fast or as skilled as hockey.

Face mask offences in football are potentially lethal, and players realize it. But fighting isn't part of football -- nor is it part of baseball, though the bench-clearing brawl gets the adrenalin moving in both fans and players, but is mostly for show.

Only in professional hockey is fighting considered part of the game. And to those who love the poetry and beauty of the game, it's a pity, because hockey fights are anything but elegant or graceful. Still, little damage is done.

Perhaps those who run NHL realize the "sport" is also entertainment. Fans love the overtime shootout and relish a hockey fight that's no more lethal than a professional wrestling match where everything is for show.

As for Don Cherry, he's an adored Canadian, who espouses values most of us subscribe to. When he rants we listen, pay little attention, and wonder where he buys his jackets.