THERE’S ONLY A COUPLE OF TRUE ENFORCERS on the Flyers’ current roster—one is Jody Shelley, who’s played just a handful of games this season. As the game gets faster, heavyweights like Boogaard, Fedoruk and Shelley have become less valuable. Fighters may not be headed toward extinction, but they’re clearly on the endangered species list. And that’s how it should be, says retired Flyers captain Keith Primeau, who balanced offense (284 goals) with physicality (81 fights). Nine games into the 2005 season, Primeau suffered his fourth documented concussion, and the resulting symptoms ended his career. All told, he estimates his total number of concussions at “well north of 10.” Some days, he feels like himself; on others, the ghosts of those old injuries return—head pressure, fatigue, an inability to concentrate. Primeau says that much like the NFL a few years ago, the NHL has yet to come to terms with the real dangers in its game: “There’s still denial. I don’t think there’s concern on the part of the players. They think it’s a shame what happened to those players [like Boogaard], but they think there’s not enough evidence. I’m not as naive as to think there’s not a correlation. I’ve damaged my brain.”
If the league is headed where science seems to be pointing, hockey will eventually face a crisis like the one the NFL is confronting now. Scores of crippled former players from the bigger, faster, stronger ’90s and beyond will exhibit signs of head trauma while they’re still alive, and test positive for CTE after death. Given that, it’s increasingly hard to justify why forearming a guy in the face or ramming his head into the glass isn’t allowed in hockey, but jackhammer punches to the skull are not only condoned but applauded.
In Philadelphia, the stakes of this debate are high: A fighting ban would legislate the Flyers’ very identity out of the game. It’s tempting to say the change might help this city repair its sports image—that perhaps a segment of the fan base, like the animals who beat a Rangers fan at Geno’s Steaks in January, would stop acting like thugs. In reality, though, our passions as fans will always be rooted in the grittiest aspects of our sports. We want our defenses mean, as in the days when Reggie White and Jerome Brown made opposing quarterbacks lose sleep. We loved Allen Iverson not just for his athletic gifts, but for his willingness to bang bodies with guys twice his size. We love hustle ballplayers like Chase Utley, or Aaron Rowand, who earned a spot in Phillies lore simply by running face-first into a wall.
So would Flyers fans walk away if fighting were eliminated? Maybe some, but the truth is, even without the brawling, hockey will never be a ballet on blades. And at least as long as Ed Snider is around, the Flyers will play as physically as the sport allows.
Moments after my conversation with Fedoruk, Flyers forward Max Talbot drops to the ice after a blindside elbow to the head from an Islander player. On the radio, Therien calls it a “ridiculous, filthy, dumb play.” The fan in me is hungry for retaliation from Talbot or a teammate, something to send the old Ed Snider message—the Flyers won’t be pushed around. I’ll still stand up and cheer for a fight. But I won’t boo when the gloves stay on for good someday.