There were four fights in a recent game between the Saskatoon Contacts and the Beardy’s Blackhawks, midget-league hockey teams composed of 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds. The first two were spontaneous, rising out of collisions. The players struggled chaotically to tear each other’s helmets off and flailed away.
The second two were what are known as appointment fights.
The officials stood back and watched as the players dropped their gloves and approached each other. They bowed their heads, putting their foreheads together. They unfastened each other’s chin straps — removing your own chin strap is prohibited— and took off each other’s helmets. They backed away and nodded. Then, in a flash, they were together again, raining bare-fisted blows on each other, just like the fighters in North America’s professional hockey leagues.
The officials did not intercede until the players, spent, had fallen to the ice.
Josh Uhrich, 16, was the Contacts player in the second fight of the game. He later emerged from the dressing room while the game was still going on with a small nick inside his lip and talked casually with his mother and grandmother in the bleachers.
“It’s not like I want him to fight,” his mother said. “But I knew if he did, I wanted him to do well.”
A growing body of scientific studies has begun to reveal the risk of long-term cognitive damage that can be sustained in hockey. The issue gained attention last year when Derek Boogaard, an N.H.L. enforcer who died in May at 28, was found to have had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head. The brains of three other former N.H.L. players have been examined posthumously, and all three were found to have the disease.
Even as some youth hockey officials advocate more stringent rules against fighting, it remains a proud tradition in places like Saskatchewan. The children who dream of playing in the N.H.L., and the parents who want to help them make those dreams come true, are convinced that fighting is an integral part of the game.
“You could get hurt falling out of bed,” said Kelly Fiske, the father of Bryce Fiske, a 14-year-old player for the North East Wolfpack, one of the province’s leading bantam teams. “It is what it is.”
‘He Was Chirping Me’
“You get one free fight,” said Ross Hnidy, 15, of the Contacts, a first-place team at the top tier of midget-level hockey. Hnidy was explaining the rules governing fighting at the midget level — one fight per season is allowed, and any fight in the last 10 minutes of a game brings an automatic suspension.
“I fought last game,” Hnidy said. “I hit this guy in the corner and he was chirping me coming out, so I turned around and we just went.”
At the bantam level, players wear cage face masks, and fighting is punishable by ejection and an automatic suspension, so fights are rare and swiftly broken up by officials. The next level is midget. Players still wear cages, and fights are also punished by an automatic ejection. But a player can have one fight without getting a suspension, so scraps, though still rare, do happen.
Next is junior hockey, for 16- through 20-year-olds, with 15-year-olds allowed to play in as many as five games on call-ups from their midget teams. In the second tier of junior, the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, a player can fight six times before earning an automatic suspension and a fine for the team, so there are plenty of altercations — about a fight every other game, on average.
But at the top level, the Western Hockey League, the rules are closer to those of the N.H.L., and a player can pretty much fight as much as he likes as long as he limits it to no more than two a game. The W.H.L., known as a haven for tough players, is where Boogaard and many other fighters made their names.
Hnidy was one of three Contacts players called up this season to the W.H.L. As under-age players, they have to wear cages and so were off-limits for fighting. But next season, at 16, the cages come off if they are in the W.H.L.
“Definitely in the W.H.L., I wouldn’t be scared to fight,” Hnidy said. “I go to the gym sometimes, do the punching bag. I do some boxing. I might as well prepare for it.”
On a recent Sunday at their rink in Saskatoon’s southern outskirts, the Contacts were playing the Blackhawks, a team from Duck Lake, 50 miles north. The Blackhawks had Ryan Pilon, a 15-year-old defenseman who is good enough to have played this season in the W.H.L. and for Canada’s youth team. He had not fought since the pee-wee level and was “definitely not” going to take boxing lessons, but he said he was looking forward to fighting in the W.H.L.
“I want to get the first one out of the way,” Pilon said. “I kind of like that side of the game. I hope they don’t cut down on it.”
Question of Respect
Fighting is on the decline, and some in the sport contend the game is changing. Players who serve no purpose other than fighting, commonly known as goons, are disappearing. This season in the N.H.L., the number of fights is down 15 percent compared with last year at this time. The W.H.L., however, still averages about one fight per game — similar to last season’s rate.
Here in Saskatoon, four players on the Blades, the city’s W.H.L. team, have been injured in fights this season. But public opinion appears to be firmly in favor of preserving fighting.
“When you eliminate the opportunity for players to quote-unquote defend themselves, there’s significantly more stickwork, significantly more bullying or verbal abuse, where a player knows if he does something he can get that other player out of the game,” said Kelly McClintock, who as general manager of the Saskatchewan Hockey Association is in charge of amateur hockey in the province.
Like most fathers of players on the Wolfpack and other teams, he played in an era when there was less protective gear.
“I’m 50,” McClintock said. “It was only in my last year of minor hockey that you had to wear a full face mask. Till that point, I was never called as many names as I was in that year. People feel pretty brave behind a face mask. The year before, if someone called you something, you’d punch him in the face. I believe there was a lot more respect in the game back then than there is today.”
McClintock said he enforces the strict antifighting rules at the bantam level. But he said he would like to remove face masks at that level.
“Put the half-visor on,” he said. “Now all of a sudden you’re not as brave, and there’s a lot more respect in the game.”
Things Are ‘Different’
The Wolfpack’s players come from throughout northern Saskatchewan, but the team is based at the Northern Lights Palace in Melfort, a city of 5,000 located 100 miles northeast of Saskatoon.
Across the street from the Palace is the city’s old arena, where Boogaard, at age 15 and playing for another Melfort team, became enraged and went into the opposing team’s bench, throwing punches. The outburst impressed scouts from the W.H.L.’s Regina Pats, who moved to add Boogaard to their roster.
“Things are a lot different now,” said Darren Seaman, the Wolfpack’s coach.
Seaman, whose son Caleb is a top prospect on the team, has had a no-fighting rule in place all season.
“When you fight in bantam hockey, it’s a glorified wrestling match,” Darren Seaman said. “In bantam, with the masks on, don’t waste my time. You’re going to get a suspension no matter what if you throw a punch, so why go? Not like in the W.H.L., where they touch their heads together and take off each other’s helmets. That’s a scrap.”
Still, Seaman considers himself old school. He played junior hockey in Saskatchewan, and an older son, Tyrel, is a center with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the W.H.L. and is expected to go in the first three rounds of the next N.H.L. entry draft.
Despite his no-fighting rule, Seaman said that for older age groups, fighting is needed to govern hockey. “If you take it right out, it’ll change the game,” he said.
Bryce Fiske, a smallish defenseman on the Wolfpack, said he had no problem with fighting.
“It doesn’t really scare me — I’ve done it a couple times this year and I did it once last year,” he said. He was suspended twice this season.
Fiske is an example of the commitment young players make to hockey. He lives in La Ronge, an isolated community a three-hour drive north of Melfort, which makes going to practice twice a week difficult. Since he was 9 months old, his family has housed players for La Ronge’s junior team. Next season he will play on a top-tier midget team in Tisdale, 25 miles east of Melfort. He will board with a family there.
“To me he’s not the average 14-year-old boy — he’s very passionate, very committed,” his mother, Tracy, said. Was she worried about him fighting if he made it to the W.H.L.?
“You don’t want him to ever get hurt, but I worry more because he’s 14 and he’s going to move from home,” she said. “But when it does happen, you hope that he can take care of himself. You hope he doesn’t get hurt, and that he doesn’t hurt anybody else.”
The Wolfpack recently played in Warman, a town of subdivisions just outside Saskatoon. Scouts from nearly a dozen W.H.L. teams were at the rink to see the top prospects and interview them and their parents.
“I drove a thousand miles to get here,” said Colin Alexander, director of player personnel for the Seattle Thunderbirds, as he wrote down players’ names and numbers on a clipboard.
Dale McMullin, director of scouting for the Regina Pats, was asked about Fiske.
“You’re talking about a character player,” McMullin said. “He’s got battle. He’s a hard-nosed kid.”
If another young player emerged with Boogaard’s skill set — a fighter with little scoring ability — would he be snapped up?
“Society has changed in the last 20 years,” Alexander said.
Another Regina scout, Graham Newton, said W.H.L. scouts were no longer looking for pure enforcers.
“You look for the compete level, and you look for the player who is fearless, too,” Newton said. “The terminology is throwing snow — if someone is coming to hit you, you stop short and throw snow. I’m looking for the player who can accept the body check, who has a little pushback, who shows he’ll stand up for his teammate. Not necessarily someone who’ll drop the mitts, but you look for the toughness, the fearless play — that’s what you want in a real hockey player.”
The Wolfpack lost, 4-0, to the Sask Valley Vipers. Before the players got back into their shirts and ties and headed to their chartered bus for the ride to their Saskatoon motel, McMullin, Alexander and other scouts talked to them and their parents. Would their sons be willing to go to Seattle, Victoria, Kelowna and other far-flung locales to play in the W.H.L.?
The answer was always yes.
Few players were thinking about American collegiate hockey, where there is no fighting.
Part of the Game
Tristan Elder, a tall and thin 14-year-old, is one of Fiske’s teammates and a top player for the Wolfpack. He lives near Kinistino, a town of 700 with little more than a grain elevator and a gas station, just like many other towns spread far apart along the two-lane prairie highway. Visitors often miss the gravel turnoff that leads to Elder’s house, so his father drives to the road in his pickup with the flashers on to show the way.
Elder has been playing hockey since he was 3. If he continues to progress, in about a year and a half he will probably join a club in the W.H.L.
“This is what we worked for our whole life,” said his father, Derek. “We’ve always been trying to get to the next level, playing summer hockey, driving to tournaments in Edmonton, Calgary, Fargo.”
If Tristan Elder must fight when he reaches the W.H.L., he will be ready.
“Definitely we’ve been talking about fighting,” Derek Elder said. “Tristan’s a left-hander. It’s an advantage because if you grab the guy’s right arm with your right arm, you’re swinging with your left and you’ve got his dominant arm.”
Derek Elder played junior B in Saskatchewan in the late 1970s. Unlike his son, a wing who grinds in the corners and scores a fair number of goals, Derek was a defenseman.
“I was the mean one,” he said. “I used to fight lots as a kid, whether it was on the ice or off the ice.”
Now he says he will help his son prepare for what is inevitable if he makes the W.H.L.
“I’ve got a good buddy that I played a little bit of rec hockey with — he was drafted into the W.H.L. for fighting, basically, and he told me that he would help out with Tristan a little bit with the fighting part of it — balance, some pointers,” Derek said.
“I’ve been thinking that in the summer it wouldn’t hurt to put him into boxing, how to block, where to strike, know those striking spots ...,” Derek added.
His son finished his sentence: “So you can take the guy down.”
Article from the New York Times