For 39 years I have written a sports column. For many years it was in each week’s edition of the Melfort Journal. For a number of years I reviewed court cases of assault charges arising from hockey games and occasionally wrote about them in my column.
In 1982 I wrote a column in the form of a letter which I sent to the Attorney General for Manitoba, Roland Penner, analyzing Jimmy Mann of the Winnipeg Jets sucker punching Paul Gardner of the Pittsburgh Pennguins. I thought the circumstances justified an assault charge. Mr. Penner thanked me for the letter. While I doubt my letter had any influence Mann was charged and convicted and received a $500 fine.
In 1984 I made written and oral submissions to the Law Reform Commission of Canada which was looking at the issue of force in sports especially in hockey. I closed my written submission by stating:
I believe it will be necessary for those involved in law enforcement to curtail hockey violence because leagues continue to shirk their responsibility and the public remains passive. I have given two lectures upon the topic of “Violence in Hockey” for the Public Legal Education Association for Saskatchewan and each time less than ten people attended the lecture. In contrast lectures in the same communities on other legal topics have drawn forty to fifty people. While many individuals have advised me that steps should be taken against violence in hockey I do not perceive any groundswell demanding action. Unless law enforcement authorities lead the way I do not think there will be any public outcry demanding true enforcement of our laws until the inevitable occurs and some player is killed by being hit by a stick. When a player is charged with murder because of his actions in a hockey game we will see action.
My focus was on what constituted a criminal assault during a game rather than an assessment of whether fighting should be banned. A few times one of my columns or a letter was responded to by someone involved in professional hockey. Their uniform response was that the courts should have no role in what happens on the ice.
Cross-checking players from behind into the boards was a greater concern to me at that time than fighting.
In more recent years I have written little about violence in hockey. The law is well established on what constitutes an assault in hockey.
Fighting has been part of hockey for over 100 years. My research on violence in the game provided examples back to the opening years of the 20th Century.
I live in a province which has the highest provincial per capita number of NHL players. Each year there are about 50 NHL players from Saskatchewan. Darrell Davis wrote a fine book, Fire on Ice¸ about Saskatchewan hockey players.
I appreciate your position is that fighting should not be a part of hockey even without the danger of injury in fights. You said:
Hockey is the greatest game in the world. And it is so because it is faster than anything else. That speed – combined with the playmaking, the intensity, the intricacies, the virtuosity, along with the consciousness of five good teammates on the ice with you at any one time – make it just a beautiful game.
Your emphasis is on the beauty of the game.
Within Saskatchewan hockey has been a hard game as much or more than a beautiful game. Our players are known as tough players willing to fight. Examples over the generations include Gordie Howe, Tiger Williams and Wendel Clark.
Fighting gives hockey an edginess different from other sports. In football, basketball and baseball the agitators need not worry about backing up their taunts and provocations.
From what I have seen fighting in hockey creates far more excitement than revulsion in the stands and among those watching on television.
Such an attitude is consistent with our society’s acceptance of boxing and mixed martial arts as sports.
If our society would accept Derek could have been a boxer or a mixed martial artist why not being a fighter in hockey.
Knowing your position on what hockey should be and, without trying to be provocative, I would be interested in knowing whether you would ban boxing and mixed martial arts as sports.
In the end I am not ready to support a ban on fighting in hockey. Yet it is always in the back of my mind whether Derek would be alive today if there was no fighting in hockey.
I chose to read your book in the way you indicate you write letters. I read a few letters each day for three weeks. I found limiting my reading let me think more about the letters I read that day.
I want to thank you for your service to Canada. You are an example, by deed as well as by word, of a life committed to making our nation and world a better place.
I most admire your enthusiasm for making Canada a better place. I have tired as I approach 65. In your 70’s you have a joy and an energy that inspires me to do more.
In the book you encouraged every Canadian to take personal action to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017. I have taken up the challenge with my fellow Rotarians in the Rotary Club here in Melfort. We are going to have a fund raiser in which each Rotarian will contribute a good or a service or personal talent. Club members have asked me not to call it a GST auction.
I will send this letter by regular mail. It felt more appropriate than email. I will be posting this letter on my blog next week. If you are able to reply to my letter please let me know if I could post your reply as a subsequent post.
(David is David Johnston, Canada’s Governor General.)
While the book will resonate most strongly with Canadians it is an excellent book that would be enjoyed by readers anywhere in the world.