Lacing Up is a weekly column taken from an email conversation between Ashley Gallant and CJ. “Stoosh” Jiuliante. Stoosh is a former Faceoff Factor staff writer and a long-time hockey fan.

This week, Stoosh and I had the chance to discuss hockey fights and injuries with FF’s Matt Bodenschatz.

Ash: There has been a story in the media the last several weeks that has been on my mind, so I thought I would bring it up.

On December 12th, 21-year-old rookie defenceman Don Sanderson of the Ontario Hockey Association’s Whitby Dunlops was in a fight on the ice. His helmet slipped off during this fight, and he fell, striking his head on the ice. He briefly regained consciousness, but lapsed into a coma and was on life support. He died in the early morning hours of January 2nd.

I heard someone say that this is hockey’s first death due to an on-ice fight.

When a tragedy like this happens, everyone should take a close look at the situation and determine if changes need to be made.

My question is simple: should the hockey world make any changes in response to Sanderson’s death?

Matt: First off, thanks for inviting me to participate in this week’s “Lacing Up.” I have to say, this is one of my favorite columns on Faceoff Factor, and I hope my contributions don’t ruin that!

As for the question, I think any time something so drastic happens, an in-depth look must be taken. In this case, we’re looking at a hockey fight, an auxiliary part of the sport. Some may say it is a necessity, a policing of the players by the players. Others may say it is a sideshow, a distraction from the true finesse and beauty of the game. Regardless of your standpoint, you must acknowledge that death is a severe consequence that should not be part of any hockey equation, and because of that, fighting must be looked at a bit more closely.

But, with that being said, I am a firm believer that one instance should not be the backbone of an anti-fighting crusade. A young man lost his life in an act he willingly participated in. It would do him no service to use his example to prove a point.

The fact is that, aside from the usual — bloodied knuckles, bruised eyes, and the occasional broken bones — there rarely is an injury worth noting. And, as long as fighting is limited to those who show a willingness to pa rticipate, I s ee no reason to make any changes what-so-ever. To be honest, aside from completely eliminating fighting, I can’t really think of anything that can be done to make it safer. In fact, I’d venture to guess that adding fighting stipulations may serve to make it even more dangerous than it already is.

Ash: Well, thanks for accepting our invitation! I’m sure you’ll add a lot to our discussion this week.

I think you make a great point: the hockey world should not overreact and ban fighting altogether. Fighting is a part of the game, and ‘banning’ it won’t get rid of it. Don Sanderson played in a league that ejects players for fighting, and yet he still had something like 4 fights in 13 games this season. If the penalty for fighting was harsher – multi-game suspensions – the nastiness would just carry over in other parts of the game. European/international hockey can get a little nasty (spears, butt-ends, etc) because of the near absence o f fighting.

However, I do believe that there is something that can be done to better protect players – they should just keep their helmets on their heads. I think it’s a little stupid when I see players take their helmets off for a fight…and are praised for it. They are more concerned with their hands than their heads. It’s also stupid to have players continue playing after their helmets pop off their heads. Here’s an idea – why don’t leagues decide to assess 2-minute penalties to players who continue to play after losing their helmets (much like in international games)? And why don’t the officials immediately stop fights after someone loses their helmet?

Hockey players are forced to wear helmets for a reason, so they should be forced to keep those helmets on their heads at all times. Is that an unreasonable request?

Matt: I’ve never thought of the idea of penalizing any player who plays without a helmet. On the surface, it sounds like a great idea. But consider this scenario:

A team is on a 5-on-3 penalty kill and is being pressured by the opponent,. One of the defenders loses his helmet and must retreat to the bench in the middle of the play or take yet another penalty. Going to the bench leaves a 5-on-2 situation, and staying on the ice puts the team in further penalty trouble. It’s a lose-lose situation.

It seems strange that players are willing to go the distance to protect their hands and ignore their heads, but how often have players truly hurt themselves in a fall to the ice? Not many, which indicates that players who fight typically know how to protect themselves and their opponents when the fight is taken to the ice.

I’m just not sure there is a realistic measure that can be taken to make fighting, a violent act in and of itself, safer. Fighting is dangerous by nature, so taking measures to make it less dangerous ultimately changes the fight itself. If that happens, it’s very possible that fighting may decline naturally and other parts of the game — spears, butt-ends, etc, as you mentioned — might become the new form of player enforcement.

Ash: I understand the concern about a 5-on-3 situation becoming a 5-on-2, but I personally cannot accept that argument as a basis for allowing players to play (or fight) without helmets on their heads. Honestly, if players were to actually tighten their chin straps appropriately, their helmets would not slip off very easily at all and the ’5-on-3 becoming a 5-on-2’ would be a very rare occasion.

I know that there aren’t a great deal of players injuring themselves by smacking their bare heads on the ice, but it’s not like it doesn’t happen. Players can’t always protect themselves when they fall to the ice, and opponents aren’t always willing to stop. I’ve seen players lose their helmets, fall, and suffer serious concussions. The severity of those head injuries would be greatly reduced if their heads had only been protected by a proper helmet.

Head injuries have a way of really messing up the brain on a long-term basis. Athletes who have sustained multiple head injuries over the course of their careers often find themselves severely disabled in their 40s and 50s as a result of brain damage. There are a number of football players and wrestlers who can attest to that.

I’m not sure fighting in hockey would change that much if the league enforced a helmet rule where players had to keep their helmets on during a fight, and the officials would immediately break up a fight if someone lost his helmet. Plenty of players wear shields and currently fight with their helmets on. Fighting is a choice, and it would still be a choice on the table for all players.

A teenaged girl died as the result of being hit in the head by a puck during a Columbus Blue Jackets game, and nets were immediately put up at either end of the rink as a way to protect the fans. Her death was a bit of a freak accident, but the league would have been negligent if they had done nothing and the same thing would’ve happened to someone else. Wouldn’t the hockey world be negligent if they didn’t do anything and another player died because his helmet came off while playing/fighting and he fell and struck his head on the ice? I think so.

Stoosh: John Buccigross addressed this issue in his column this past week and referred back to a hypothetical situation he wrote about a year or so ago in which two players get in a fight, helmets come off, one gets knocked out with a punch and since he has no way of bracing himself for a fall, smacks his head on the ice when he lands and dies a day or two later from his injuries. That situation came dangerously close to manifesting itself here the other night when Ruslan Fedotenko buckled Colby Armstrong with one punch to the chin. Armstrong was not knocked unconscious; he was dazed and luckily when he fell, he was still able to brace his fall.

But what about the situation when Kevin Stevens was sucker-punched by Richie Pilon, knocked cold and landed face-first on the ice, literally shattering half of his face? A friend of mine was at that game and he said it was one of the most horrible sports injuries he’s ever seen. Stevens had no chance to brace his fall.

I don’t know how the league chooses to draw that line. I do know that in most cases, injuries – or even a death like this – to participants in a game that are a result of what is understood to be a normal course of game action are generally understood to exist under an “assumption of risk” concept that is written into American Tort Law. I’m not sure what Canadian law says on the subject, but there is some understood assumption of the risk of injury – even injuries that can result in death – on the part of these athletes when they choose to engage in a sport like hockey, football, etc.

The legal emphasis, though, is on injuries suffered from conduct that the athlete can reasonably expect to be a part of the game. This is why Marty McSorely’s stick-swinging offense against Donald Brashear several years ago could’ve very well been considered assault/battery. I don’t have all of the details on the Bertuzzi-Moore incident, but I believe there was some debate over whether what Bertuzzi did to Moore could’ve been considered expected within the context of the game.

I think that is what could distinguish Sanderson’s death from the death of Brittanie Cecil in Columbus. The liabilities the league and its teams carry towards its paying customers are different than liabilities they have to their own players, as crazy as that may sound on its face. The situations are different largely because of that “assumption of risk” concept.

Ash: Stoosh, you make a lot of good points. I admit that I don’t know much about law (American, Canadian, or otherwise) since I’m in a health care field and haven’t taken the time to study all of the laws of the land. You’re right in that the hockey world would not be legally responsible if a player suffered the same fate as Don Sanderson because hockey players do play with the knowledge that something can happen. On the other hand, I still can’t shake the feeling that the hockey world has a moral responsibility to be proactive in preventing further tragedies.

Matt: Ultimately, I think we’re looking at a double-edged sword. On one hand, we have the argument that fighting without a helmet can lead to severe and possibly life-threatening injuries. On the other hand, we have the argument that eliminating fighting entirely could — and likely would — result in other types of attacks that could be of a more dangerous and severe variety.

The answer lies somewhere in the middle…but that’s the problem. A middle ground on this issue is difficult to come by. If helmets are required and if fights automatically stop when a helmet is dislodged, we may be looking at ineffective and useless fights. In other words, players may ultimately stop fighting on their own, knowing that one punch easily could dislodge a helmet and end the fight, leaving no sent message. So it is entirely possible that stopping fights when a helmet comes off would have the same result as banning fighting all together.

While I understand the possibility of death via fight, I also understand the possibility of death via puck, skate blade, etc. If the NHL decides to enforce strict helmet-wearing rules, it also must require neck guards to help prevent skate cuts and to reduce the effects of pucks to the neck.

At some point, players need to be able to make their own decisions. If they choose to participate in a fight, there is a chance, albeit slim, that something as drastic as death could occur.