Tuning out the violence

Russell Wangersky
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A decade ago, my oldest son and I had a ritual: we’d sit down together on the couch or the floor on the weekend, and we’d watch car racing. In particular, we’d watch Nascar, the stock car racing circuit that jumped into prominence in the late 1990s.

The brightly coloured cars would go around the track like fast, angry bees, and we’d watch for favourite drivers. My son collected different toy cars with race car colours, and we’d look for the larger versions of those cars to lead races, and often, to get caught up in the not-unusual crashes, complete with smoking, flying car parts and occasional flames.

On Feb. 18, 2001, we were watching the Daytona 500, one of Nascar’s marquee races: it’s an easy date to remember, because just before the end of the race, there was another non-unusual crash. The difference was in that crash, a popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Sr., was killed.

My seven-year-old son and I stopped watching Nascar then — we have not watched a car race together since.

Earnhardt was the fourth driver to die in a year, but it was the first one we’d actually been sitting and watching — and it’s a sickening realization that, at that instant, someone had essentially died for our entertainment. Not a moment you’d like to share with your children. Nascar made many safety changes after the Earnhardt accident, and since then, there haven’t been any drivers killed.

But I won’t ever watch Nascar again. I didn’t like what it said about me.

Why talk about it now, more than a decade later?

Because if things don’t change, professional hockey — the NHL in particular — is going to have its own Dale Earnhardt Sr. moment.

Max Pacioretty was close.

Last week, the Montreal Canadiens forward was driven into a stanchion by an opposing defenceman at the Bell Centre in Montreal, and for a moment, it looked as if his head was going to be completely separated from his body.

Pacioretty was taken from the ice with serious injuries, including a severe concussion and a fractured neck vertebra.

Similar words

Zdeno Chara, the Boston Bruins defenceman who hit Pacioretty, has said he didn’t mean to injure the Montreal forward: “I knew we were somewhere close to our bench but obviously that wasn’t my intention to push him into the post.”

Here’s Stirling Martin, the driver whose car struck Earnhardt’s and began the accident: “I definitely

didn’t do anything intentional. We were just racing our guts out for the last lap of the Daytona 500.”

Sounds eerily familiar.

Another comment from Martin?

“I watched the tape one time and that is all I want to see it.”

That goes double for me. I don’t ever want to see anything like it.

My son and I now watch hockey together. He plays the game, and we compare notes about where teams are going, and how different players are performing.

Hockey players are bigger and stronger and faster than they’ve ever been. They shoot harder, thanks in part to carbon-fibre composite sticks, and their skates are honed to an edge that makes a Ginsu knife ad look like slow-motion photography.

The NHL, right now, doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the individual, personal costs of head injuries and the players who leave the game to never return. Other leagues are packed with players who would like to make the big show, and those who don’t quite measure up in sheer skill instead make their mark with pure violence.

It’s within the power of the league to get rid of those who make their mark by injuring people who are more skilled players than they are. They just have to make the decision to act — hopefully, before someone is killed on national television. If consideration of the lives lost or permanently damaged doesn’t bother league officials (and at this point it doesn’t really seem to), perhaps the loss of fans will.

By then, it will be too late.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Nascar, NHL, Montreal Canadiens Bell Centre Boston Bruins

Geographic location: Montreal

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Recent comments

  • Herb Morrison
    March 17, 2011 - 13:41

    Russell. The fact that I submitted two comments on your editorial, is not an attempt on my part to monopolize this medium. I figured that my initial commentary might have contained something which rendered it unprintable.Consequently, I submitted the second comment.

  • the intimindator GONE
    March 17, 2011 - 11:16

    also watching daytona 500; crash not that bad; if i recall think dale sr. died from head and internal injuries suffered inside car; banging knocking around the old mellon at 200 MPH; now da boys are stapped in like Space shuttle pilots; with foam crusher pads along the wall raceway; still love watching NASCAR thou; especially anyone got FULL CABLE; WATCH RACE FROM 20 DIFFERENT CARS WITH FLICK OF THE REMOTE; my single buddy could; i couldnt afford that fancy cable; wife and too many kids to afford ROGERS / BELL cable bill that big but people watch for the CRASHES no doubt about it

    March 17, 2011 - 09:39

    RIGHT ON WANGER MAN; EXCELLENT COLUMN; U HAVE NOT "JUMPED THE SHARK" YET YOUNG FELLOW; was tough to watch the montreal fellow lying on the ice; i was watching game live on RDS; but you are dead on (pardon pun) only matter time someone killed or permanently paralyzed in injury from hockey GOONERY not saying CHARA goon; just not safe having turn buckles; protuding glass along sides of hockey rink;

  • Herb Morrison
    March 17, 2011 - 06:46

    The question is, what is it going to take to get the team owners and the members of the executive of the N.H.L. to take affirmative action, in order to deal with unnecessary violence in the N.H.L., before more injuries, or possibly a fatality occurs? Suppose one of the league’s top players decided to go into retirement rather than risk being injured as a result of being on the receiving end of a cheap shot, especially a hit to the head. The spectre of a star player leaving the game would, I believe, motivate both the team owners and the top brass of the N.H.L. , to act in order to curb unnecessary violence in the N.H.L. Here’s why. Operating an N.H.L. team is a business. Obviously, the object in any business venture is to make a profit. Star players are the drawing card. They bring the fans into the arenas and the owners make money. Is it possible that the team owners tend to see all players, not as human beings, but as commodity, a means to an end, that end being to make money? If this were the case, it would help to explain why more effective action to curb unnecessary violence in the N.H.L. has not been taken up to this point. Even when hockey is played as it should be there is a possibility that players can be injured. The risk of personal injury is part on the game. Hockey is a violent sport. However, when players resort to using excessive, unnecessary violence, in the sport, as allegedly is happening of late in the N.H.L., then the team owners and N.H.L. executive need to step in and do whatever is necessary to eliminate excessive use of force by players in the N.H.L. As much as I enjoy watching the occasional game, complete with good clean solid body checking, I have no desire to see any player suffer an injury or, worse case scenario, suffer a fatal injury. Perhaps if the N.H.L. team owners were faced with the possibility that one of their star players, one of those people who puts fans in the arena seats, and money in owners’ pocket, was going to retire, this might just provide sufficient motivation for both the N.H.L. team owners, and top brass to do something to eliminate unnecessary violence in the N.H.L.

  • Herb Morrison
    March 16, 2011 - 15:03

    Sydney Crosby holds the key when it Comes to getting the N.H.L. owners and Executive to do something about unnecessary violent hits,in general, and head shot in particular. Why, because if there is one thing that the afore-mentioned persons value, it's the proverbial "almighty dollar." If Crosby were to indicate that he was even considering retiring, rather than risking possible injury, should he take an unnessary head shot, the possibility that the league owners would lose money, would be more than enough to encourage them to take action to quash excessive violence in the N.H.L. Crosby is too valuable a commodity. A commodity that neither the pittsburg Penguins in particular, nor the N.H.L., in general, can afford to lose. Perhaps part one of the reasons why the Owners and executive aren't willing to act on this issue is because, to them their players are looked on as a money-making commodity first. The fact that Sid the Kid, and his fellow -players are human beings would appear to be a secondary consideration, as far as owners are concerned. Operating a hockey team is a business. The object is to make money. Fine and dandy. However, if the N.H.L. owners in partcular continue to value the size of their wallet more than the safety of the players, as appears to be the case, players will continue to be injured, perhaps suffering permanent physical damage, or even death. Hockey, even when played by the rules, is a physical contact sport, where the possibility of injury is a fact of life for every player. If unnessary violence is to be eliminaated, particularly in the N.H.L. the owners need to be hit "where it hurts," in the pocketbook. The mere possibility that the N.H.L. could lose a player of the caliber of Sydney Crosby, not to mention the revenue his presence in the league generates both for the owners of the Pittsburg franchise and for the league, would, be enough to move both the N.H.L. owners and executive to take effective action to curb any unnessary violence in the game.

  • sandy
    March 16, 2011 - 07:42

    To clean up the mess in the NHL, a new president is needed. A recent poll showed that only 5% agreed that the current president is doing a good job. You can't run hockey leagues and treat players like widgets; they are human beings. I am now watching fewer games due to recent events; many others I know are doing the same. To get the message across to NHL should fan stay away from the game for a week or two, and should we change our TV channel for a week or so?

  • Stephen Murray
    March 15, 2011 - 20:04

    Well said Russell!

  • Cal Sparkes
    March 15, 2011 - 14:09

    Get real - part of sports is 'the risk'. Managed risk but non the less a risk. one can live in a shell and complain about the world or live with a realization that stuff happens . If you don't like it 'tune out'; but, don't criticize unless you are actually involved!! I know - everybody but Russell is wrong.