Can Flyers Fans Love the Game Without Hockey Fights?

Player concussions might be reason enough to try.

The look on Lauren Pronger’s face said it all. Decked out in a sleek Nicole Miller dress, she was minutes removed from strutting across the catwalk at the inaugural Flyers wives fashion show at the Bellevue. But as excited as she was that night in January, the wife of Flyers captain Chris Pronger couldn’t hide her sadness when asked about her husband, who’s been sidelined since November with post-concussion symptoms. Whatever concerns she had about his hockey career, they paled in comparison to her fears for his everyday health. “It’s a tough go at home,” she said, struggling for a moment to keep her composure. “It’s tough for all of us to watch him go through this … it breaks my heart.”

When an athlete falls to injury, quotes from players, coaches, trainers and even doctors only speak to part of the story. When Pronger’s wife says she just wants her husband back—the strong, quick-witted guy who wasn’t plagued by crippling headaches—we see sports in a broader context for a moment. Speaking as a Flyers fan myself, the loss of Pronger’s leadership on a team full of rookies is evident, as are the team’s struggles defensively without his steady presence on the ice. That’s rather petty stuff compared to what he and his family are going through in private. I’m worried about the Flyers making a serious run at a Stanley Cup; Lauren Pronger is worried about whether her husband, the father of their three children, will ever be himself again.

This is the heartbreaking side of physical, full-contact sports like hockey, and it’s an issue I explore in “Will We Still Love the Flyers Without the Blood and Violence” in this month’s Philadelphia magazine. The athletes who play these games do so willingly, knowing the risks they take when they lace up their skates. But why not remove the one potentially devastating element that isn’t truly essential to the game—brawls?

I spoke to a number of former Flyers for the story, and most of them defended fighting’s role in the game, including Bill Clement, who, for my money, is one of the best analysts in the league. “Until somebody can show me a clinical study that fighters suffer more brain damage or concussions than the average player, or that hockey players suffer more than other athletes, I want it to stay,” he said. “Perhaps I’ve got to get over it. But you’ve got to show me something.”

Though the game has changed since Clement was a member of those bare-knuckled Stanley Cup-winning Bullies teams, he argues that some degree of self-policing on the ice is still necessary. “Even today, you’re going to get the shit beat out of you if you don’t have some toughness,” Clement said. And if the day comes when no one is allowed to drop their gloves on Broad Street? “Hockey fans in Philadelphia would miss it.”

Read Richard Rys’s full story on the Flyers and violence in hockey.

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