December 21, 2011 10:33 pm

Ice hockey hits its target too often

A balance between modern mores and heritage

I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out – Rodney Dangerfield

When the late comedian uttered that now famous joke some years ago, he described how much of the world views ice hockey. As a Canadian who grew up playing the sport, and still feels nostalgic at the crisp sound of sharp skates gliding on clean ice, I used to defend the game of charges that it was nothing more that sanctioned violence. That was an anomaly, I would say; the speed, the finesse, the athleticism, the excitement of the game played at its best was peerless in world sport.

The problem is that the joke, or at least the observation that underpins it, is now much harder to skate round. Earlier this month, an extraordinary series by the New York Times detailed the career of Derek Boogaard. A 6ft 7in, 18 stone giant of a man, Boogaard was an “enforcer”, the euphemism used to describe a team’s designated fighter.

As a child, he was not a great skater or good goal scorer, but his size marked him out. “We thought maybe this guy could be an animal one day,” said one scout in awe, who told Boogaard’s parents that for him to play, he would have to learn to fight.

He did, earning a reputation as one of the toughest players in the junior leagues, and in 2001, he was drafted to the National Hockey League, the sport’s premier competition, quickly establishing himself as one of its best fighters.

But a career of bare-knuckled combat took its toll: in May, at the age of 28 and after six seasons in the NHL, he died after an accidental overdose of alcohol and prescription painkillers.

After his death, researchers at Boston University studied his brain and found that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease related to Alzheimer’s that is believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. It mirrored conditions they had found in former boxers and even if he had lived, they say, he would have probably have suffered brain damage.

The Boogaard case is not the only one in recent months to have shone an unwelcome spotlight on the physical nature of hockey and how the sport is managed. The league has been struggling for years with a spate of concussions that has forced some of its biggest stars into early retirement and, more recently, kept some of its best – and most marketable – players out of action for months.

The NHL has taken some steps to address the situation. Gary Bettman, the league’s long-time commissioner, has said that he wants to rid the game of concussions. The NHL has set up a Concussion Working Group to monitor such injuries, which is run by the league and the players union, and led by the NHL’s neuropsychologist. It has also banned body-checks that are more likely to cause concussions, such as blindside hits, where the player can’t see what is coming.

Critics, however, including former players, medical professionals and, on occasion, big advertisers, say more must be done. They claim egregious hits are not punished severely enough and some have even argued that fighting, which has a long tradition in the sport even though it is penalised, should be banned entirely.

But like anyone who runs a big business – the NHL generates revenues of $3bn a year – the game’s bosses are trying to strike a balance between modern mores and the sport’s heritage. As Mr Bettman put it recently: “Our fans tell us that they like the level of physicality in our game.”

Clearly, managers need to listen to their various constituent groups and be mindful of legacy. This is perhaps even more important in sports, where fans have a much deeper, tribal affinity with their teams than consumers tend to with the products and services they buy. Consider the furious reaction of Manchester United supporters when they realised the Glazer family’s takeover of the club was highly leveraged.

But the NHL experience also points to how executives can become hamstrung by heritage and give too much weight to some stakeholders instead of leading them. Steve Jobs understood this perfectly. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” he said famously.

I hope hockey’s executives do the same, for the sake of its employees, its future, and, at the very least, so that I can go back to dismissing the Dangerfield view of a beautiful game as an exception rather than the rule.

ravi.mattu@ft.com

Michael Skapinker is away

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