Red Deer Rebels forward Josh Tarzwell lands a punch on Jeremy Masella of the Prince Albert Raiders earlier this season. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

Can we ever have hockey without fighting?

As a sat almost two weeks ago, watching a teenager lay face up on the ice, I was forced to re-evaluate a certain aspect of hockey.

Dakota Krebs of the Calgary Hitmen had been knocked out cold in a fight with Jeff de Wit of the Red Deer Rebels and initially, fans jeered and players clapped their sticks against the boards in excitement. No one wanted Krebs hurt of course – no one was happy or thrilled to see him struggle to his feet with the support of two teammates. He is still day-to-day with an upper-body injury and never returned to the game.

Yet there we were, not four or five whistled later, with the sounds of “fight, fight, fight” blasting out of the loudspeakers after a scrum in front of the net and fans young and old pining for the same brutality. Fans get fired up at the mere inclination that the gloves and fists might fly.

I’ll admit, I used to be one of those people. I used to believe in the game-changing ability of a well-timed fight or the momentum swing that can result for a team that’s fallen behind. I still do to an extent, but I struggle balancing the short term entertainment with the long term effects of it all.

That timely punch may very well have ended Krebs’ hockey career. Not just in the WHL, but for the rest of his life. Do we really think that hockey needs that, to provide the top value entertainment that it does?

As a society that supports hockey and fights that inevitably come along with it, there is a disconnect from the reality of the injuries and the action that causes them. We ignore the risks of fighting because it has always been woven into the fabric of the game. We seem to think we can’t have one without the other. And maybe the answer is we can’t.

The game has reached a crossroad more so because we know the risks of head trauma better than we ever have at any point in history. We know the long term effects of repetitive blows to the head, that’s why head checking is called more vigorously than ever before.

Still, I don’t think fighting will ever be totally removed from hockey. It’s a fast game and the physicality of it all lends to emotions running high at all times. Often, the gloves hit the ice before the combatants even realize what they’re doing. Just like when 16-year-olds Blake Sydlowski and Yegor Buyalski scrapped last week, Buyalski just started throwing without even bothering to throw off his gloves.

It was an emotional response with emotions running high. It’s hard to fault a pair of teenagers for that reaction.

If the fans crave it and the players think it holds value, as they did in that moment, who is left to stop fighting? The coaches, the parents, the executives, the leagues and big names in the sport are the only ones who can force change.

The more you think about the brain of a young teenager crashing into the ice, with or without a helmet, the faster your appetite for fisticuffs fades.

We’ve seen fighting fade from the mainstream of hockey in recent years, but after what I saw earlier this month I can’t help but wonder if we’re doing enough?

Email sports tips to Byron Hackett

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