May 12, 2023 - Sports

Study: Hockey's enforcers die younger

hockey players fighting

When legendary enforcer Bob Probert (L) died in 2011, doctors found CTE in his brain tissue. Photo: Rick Stewart/Allsport/Getty Images

A new study shows that former National Hockey League enforcers — guys who fought a lot — live significantly shorter lives than their peers.

Why it matters: Fighting has already nearly disappeared from the NHL. Studies like this could lead to it ultimately being banned.

Details: Researchers at Columbia University analyzed data from 6,039 NHL players from 1967 to last spring.

  • They defined enforcers as players who had participated in 50 or more fights.
  • They compared them to similar players (age, height, weight, position, etc.) who had not.

By the numbers: Over 90% of the players in the study are still alive. But among those who have died, there's a stark difference between the fighters and non-fighters.

  • The average age of death for the enforcers who have died was 47.5.
  • For the control group, the average age of death was 57.7.

Between the lines: The differences in causes of death is also striking.

  • Of the 21 enforcers who died, 11 died of causes often linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the study notes.
  • There were three suicides, two drug overdoses, two neurodegenerative disorder deaths and four car crashes.
  • Aside from one car crash, no control group players died of these causes.

State of play: The debate about fighting in hockey has been raging for years. Some see it as outdated and unimportant; others think it's a crucial part of hockey culture and still has a place in the modern game.

  • It's starting to feel like the end is near, though: The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), one of the three junior leagues in Canada, announced in March that it is banning fighting.
  • The change was spearheaded by Enrico Ciccone, a former NHL enforcer who's been vocal about the toll it took on him and many others.

The other side: "I think it's a really bad call … I don't agree with it at all," Dallas Stars forward Max Domi said when asked about the QMJHL's change.

  • "I'd say about 99.99% of the NHL … most guys are gonna say fighting is pretty crucial," he added.
  • "I'm a huge advocate for keeping fighting around, and I think it's a huge mistake by the [QMJHL]."

The last word: "With declining rates of fighting and a lack of evidence that fighting promotes attendance, winning, or player safety, it is time that the NHL … eliminates fighting," the study's authors conclude.

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