By Ken Reed

In recent findings that are far from shocking, National Hockey League (NHL) enforcers (players who frequently engage in fighting) die 10 years earlier than their peers, according to a study published by JAMA on May 10, 2023.

Brain trauma has long been a concern when it comes to NHL players, especially enforcers and others who partake in fighting on a fairly regular basis. Fighting has always been implicitly accepted in the NHL. Players fighting during games only receive a 5-minute penalty and then are allowed back in the game.

The premature deaths of multiple NHL enforcers, including Rick Rypien (aged 27 years), Derek Boogaard (aged 28 years), Wade Belak (aged 35 years), Steve Montador (aged 35 years), and Bob Probert (aged 45 years), have drawn attention to the potential health consequences, including CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), of fighting.

A recent examination of all-cause mortality comparing National Football League (NFL) players with Major League Baseball (MLB) players demonstrated that NFL players had an elevated all-cause mortality. This study was undertaken to better understand the relationship between fighting, penalty minutes, and repetitive head trauma with neurodegenerative disorders and all-cause mortality in the NHL.

The findings revealed NHL enforcers die a mean of 10 years earlier and more frequently of suicide and drug overdose than matched controls. The causes of death in the 21 enforcers studied included neurodegenerative disorders, drug overdose, suicide, and motor vehicle crashes, whereas only 1 of the 24 age-matched controls died of any of these causes (motor vehicle crash).

Here’s hoping this study spurs calls for game misconduct penalties — at a minimum — for fighting. Multi-game penalties should be seriously considered, as should strong penalties for any blows delivered to the head during play.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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