Fighting: It’s Time to Educate


    Last night, in another rare occurrence, Philadelphia Phantoms tough guy, Garrett Klotz, fought the Manchester Monarch’s enforcer, Kevin Westgarth, on the drop of the opening faceoff. It began at center ice, but after a few punches back and forth in an even affair, it shifted towards the Monarch’s bench. It was then that Westgarth landed some heavy rights, including a few uppercuts, and Klotz went down. He immediately began convulsing and medical staff rushed over to aid the 20 year old.

    It was an unprecedented event that had no relation to head collision on the ice surface or the boards as he fell. There is no word as of yet as to whether or not Klotz has a history of epilepsy, though it would most definitely have been noted by the franchise if he did, but in researching head injuries as a correlation to seizures, they are more common than you would think.

    According to medical sources: “Unfortunately, seizures may develop immediately after an injury to the brain or may develop in delayed fashion, showing up months or years after the initial trauma. Generally speaking, the risk of post traumatic seizures is related to the severity of the injury- the greater the injury, the higher the risk of developing seizures. Even mild to moderate injuries can result in seizures. It is thought that a head injury disrupts the pathways of the brain and that an epileptic seizure can be viewed as a sort of short circuit of the brain’s electrical functioning. During the seizure the electrical fields in the brain are overloaded, resulting in seizures” (Steven Igou).

    As such, it is highly possible that upon impact of receiving the few powerful hits in a row, an injury to the brain – possibly a mild concussion occurring or disturbed upon impact – caused the brain to shake, resulting in sudden brain trauma that would initiate the seizure immediately. The following image is a diagram of how your brain reacts upon impact from a force striking the skull. Consider also that your brain can not only move front to back, but also side to side.

    Injury to Brain
    Injury to Brain

    With serious blows of which the athlete is not braced for, such as boxers who are nearing a knock-out, they begin to take longer in reaction time in order to prepare and expect another punch to be thrown. In the fight between Klotz and Westgarth, after the first few blows by the bench, Klotz had lost his reaction time and thus each strike to the head became more and more severe.

    “A concussion is a sudden trauma-induced alteration of the alert state. The person may be unable to concentrate or be confused for a few seconds, or completely lose consciousness and fall down. The brain is vulnerable to traumatic damage in two ways. The cerebral cortex can become bruised – contused – when the head strikes a hard object (or a hard objects strikes the head). Or, the deep white matter can suffer diffuse axonal injury when the head is whiplashed without hitting a hard object (or being hit by one). In serious whiplash injuries, the axons are stretched so much that they are damaged.”

    Since fighting involves an abundance of collisions to the head, over a period of time, enforcers in the NHL, NFL, boxing, and mixed martial arts athletes are more prone to sudden outbursts of seizures than others.

    “Persons who have had head trauma are twelve times as likely as the general population to suffer seizures. While there are contradictory studies, the more recent study (Lee, 1992) showed that of 4,232 persons suffering mild closed head injury, 53% had early post-traumatic epilepsy. Approximately 57% of head injured individuals developed epilepsy within one-year of injury.”

    Here is a direct quote on how brain injury is involved with a seizure:

    “Nerve cells communicate with one another electrically and chemically. One nerve sends an electrical discharge along its axon to stimulate another distant nerve. The actual stimulation is done chemically. When the electrical discharge reaches the end of the axon, the electricity causes the axonal tip to spit a chemical ‘neurotransmitter’ at receptor sites on the next nerve cell. All this takes place in a nice orderly fashion. A ‘grand mal’ seizure occurs when every nerve cell in the brain rapidly fires electrical discharges at one another. The resulting chaos causes the patient to lose consciousness, fall down, and convulse. The same uncontrolled discharges in a focal area of the brain may cause the patient to experience or do what function that focal area normally controls. Such ‘focal’ or ‘partial’ seizures may manifest as recurrent bouts of numbness, fear, anxiety, a forced memory, jerking of a limb or face, lip smacking, sudden staring spells, or inability to speak.”

    There is also speculation that if a person is struck in the head and the impact creates a bone fracture, there is less damage to the brain since the fracture itself would act as an absorbent. The media medical release (thanks to Paul Holmgren, Philadelphia Flyers GM) had this to say about Klotz after the game: “there’s no facial fracture. They’re stitching him up – his jaw is fine and there’s no tooth fracture or anything.” This would mean Klotz took full impact on each of the hits and thus his brain had taken the full blow in each punch.

    Whiplash also takes effect in creating brain trauma upon the athletes. Whiplash can occur in many sports, including football and car racing. “Severe sudden twisting or torquing of the brain, as occurs in a sudden acceleration/deceleration – whiplash — accident, can stretch, twist, and damage these delicate axonal fibers. Under the microscope the axonal damage is called Diffuse Axonal Injury (DAI). Although diffuse axonal injury generally results from a severe whiplash injury that renders a patient comatose, recent studies have shown that diffuse axonal injury can also occur – but to a lesser degree — when there has been only brief loss of consciousness (LOC). Because Diffuse Axonal Injury causes microscopic damage, it cannot be visualized on CT or MRI scans.” Thus, since it is so difficult to detect these injuries via CT and MRI scans, a player could in fact continue to play without the awareness that he is more inclined to become seriously injured.

    Regardless of the claims that fighting should not be in hockey because it is dangerous, the reports are correct about one thing: it is dangerous. But that is not to say it is more dangerous than a few hard tackles in a football game, a knockout at any point during a boxing match or mixed martial arts event, or even whiplash in America’s favorite sport – NASCAR. There is a danger to every sport. They simply exist and precautionary measures must be (and are) taken in order to limit the amount of injuries that can occur. Football does not begin to remove tackling as a result of serious leg injuries or whiplash resulting in concussions; boxing and MMA do not force their athletes into wearing protective head gear to limit the blow (although they do so for boxing in the Olympics, but we are not discussing the Olympics, we are discussing professional sports); and NASCAR does not demand their racers to resist speeds of over a certain mile an hour range to limit the potential accidents; because all these events are just that – accidents.

    As the OHL decides to create a rule of players keeping their helmets on during the fight, they forget that the majority of injuries in head collision with the ice are a result of the wrestling that ensues once both fighters become exhausted or do not want to throw a punch. They tend to slip and fall due to the strength of another 180 to 250 pound athlete attempting to force you to the ground while the other tries to maintain their balance throughout the embrace. One typically falls on top of the other, causing more of an impact to the ice.

    Boogaard Fight Camp
    Boogaard Fight Camp

    There was the recent “fighting academy” that Derek Boogaard of the Minnesota Wild held two summers ago. His fight school was used as a method to teach the players how to fight properly and safely in order to protect oneself during the event to avoid injury. “We’re not teaching kids how to fight and how to hurt people,” said the six-foot-seven, 270-pound Regina native. “We’re teaching kids how to protect themselves so they don’t get hurt on the ice”. Why are we ignoring this practice? Surely this would be of great use for hockey systems to protect a vital part of the game by educating its athletes. Instead, Glen McCurdie (a spokesperson for Hockey Canada) claimed they do not support the one-day teachings of Derek and his brother Aaron and that “minor hockey is not about fighting, and to suggest there’s a safety aspect there, [he] finds that [to be] ludicrous.” He went on to say that he does not “see the value of actively promoting fighting. It actually increases the will of somebody to engage in a fight, and increases that person’s capabilities against someone who may not have any desire to get into a fight.” So what Glen McCurdie, a spokesperson for Canada’s hockey government, is saying is that Derek and Aaron are training goons. Great. That’s exactly the support a significant part of the game needs is someone who shuns out the act, regardless of the regularity of it in the system, rather than educate those who wish to pursue it as a career in the AHL and NHL. What McCurdie fails to notice is Derek is not promoting fighting, he is promoting safety in fighting.

    There is education and training for boxers and wrestlers and MMA athletes, but we won’t support and educate the enforcers in our hockey system. Then people begin to scream and shout about the kids getting injured? We teach them how to take and deliver a proper hit, why not teach how to take and deliver a proper punch? There is the argument that they will abuse the fighting system and want to hurt someone intentionally, but isn’t that already happening with players in hitting? Should we shun and ban hitting as well?

    What must be understood is that bigger and stronger players are fighting nowadays. Consider that both Klotz and Westgarth are 6’5” and between 235 to 245lbs each. A resolution must be found in order to keep these loyal and supportive athletes safe. They are not out there to hurt each other, and most are friendly acquaintances. Consider Kevin Westgarth looked on with terrified eyes from the penalty box to see if his opponent was alright after the incident.

    There needs to be a change, with some believing the removal of the instigator is the first step as it would limit the amount of injuries to a player as others would be cautious in taking a run at another knowing there is no barrier for a fight to take place afterwards; and since there is no barrier, fighting would also decrease as a result of players taking fewer chances at attacking their opponents. It’s a two-sided coin and they both go hand in hand.

    There needs to be change, and education is an alternative to pursue, but simply banning fighting is not an option.

    Micheal A. Aldred
    [email protected]