A Conversation with the Honourable R. Roy McMurtry A Forty Year Perspective on Hockey Violence - Complete Version

Dr. Paul Echlin: I would like to thank you for taking time to discuss violence in hockey from your unique perspective. Could you please tell me how your interest in hockey violence began?

Hon. Roy McMurtry: My interest began as a result of the injuries I experienced as a University of Toronto football player. I recall one concussion that I sustained while playing in an intra-squad game at our training camp on Lake Couchiching. This was 60 years ago, but I still remember receiving a blow to my head that produced immediate amnesia for all the blocking rules I had learned in the previous two weeks. However, I continued to play.

At half-time a few of the players including me were switched to the other team. I remember throwing a ferocious block that knocked the recipient out of the game. The problem was that I had blocked someone on my own team. It was captured on film and was a source of great amusement to everyone except my injured teammate.

I may have received other concussions that concerned my parents, but as is the case so often today they were neither identified nor formally diagnosed.

I signed a professional contract in early 1954 to play linebacker with the Montreal Alouettes football team. Shortly thereafter my father tragically suffered a serious stroke at the young age of 53. Fortunately, he significantly recovered within several weeks. During his recovery my father became very concerned about me continuing to play football, given the fact that I had likely sustained more than one concussion.

His concern for my health resulted in my decision to become a high school football coach rather than a Canadian Football League (CFL) player in 1954. The emerging evidence concerning the long-term effects of repetitive concussion demonstrates that my father did me a large favour.

Dr. Paul Echlin: It has been almost 40 years since your brother, William McMurtry, was commissioned by the Ontario government to investigate violence in hockey. In the same period, you, as the Attorney General of Ontario, criminally prosecuted NHL players for violence that occurred in games. 

In his 1974 report, Investigation and Inquiry Into Violence in Amateur Hockey, your brother William stated: “The two main determinants for most behaviour, violent or otherwise, are 1) the model or examples available, particularly if they are successful; and 2) the conduct encouraged or rewarded in the immediate environment.”

In that same report, William listed the following as causes of violence in hockey

  • influence of professional hockey (particularly the NHL) with its emphasis on winning and use of violence as a tactical instrument to achieve that goal.
  • a rule structure which not only tolerates violence but encourages its use by rewarding those that excel in physical intimidation. It also makes reciprocal violence inevitable.
  • lack of any proper definition of the purpose and objectives of amateur hockey, with its own model and rule structure;
  • referees: failure to apply existing rules, inconsistency and lack of support from fans, coaches, and players;
  • coaches: failure to control players, and an emphasis on winning games rather than instilling the true value of sport, and developing skills;
  • lack of respect of players for rules and officials;
  • undue pressure from parents, fans and coaches with over-emphasis on winning.

In your brother’s report, the definition of violence was taken from the Oxford English Dictionary. It states that violence is “… an unlawful exercise of physical force, intimidation by exhibition of this.” The 2000 Pascall report, Eliminating Violence in Hockey, used a very similar definition: “Violence in sports is a physical assault or other physical harmful act that is intended to intimidate or cause physical pain or injury to the other.” 

Do you agree with these definitions, and do you think that the findings of the 1974 commission are still pertinent today?

Hon. Roy McMurtry: Absolutely, absolutely. 

Dr. Paul Echlin: Why do you think the fundamental issues concerning violence in sport persist today, 37 years after this report?

Hon. Roy McMurtry: I believe that violence, fighting and headshots have become deeply entrenched in the culture of hockey at all levels, particularly in professional hockey. We know that watching professional hockey has an enormous influence on young players. My partner recently told me that his six-year-old son really enjoys the hockey fights on TV. 

A hockey hero such as Sidney Crosby is injured as a result of this violence. Hopefully he will play again, but another blow to his head can end his career and alter the rest of his life. I recently witnessed a hockey fight between Sidney Crosby’s teammate Arron Asham and Jay Beagle—a repulsive performance. Mr. Asham knocked Mr. Beagle unconscious, and then went around grandstanding about the fact. It bothered me that the CBC, a taxpayer-supported corporation, would provide a major platform to glorify the violence and the fighting. There is something sick about this type of public demonstration, to put it mildly.

Dr. Paul Echlin: I would like to read you the telling comment from Mr. Beagle’s Washington Capitals teammate, Brooks Laich, as it appeared in the Washington Post (October 14th, 2011) concerning the incident: 

“I really don’t care about that awareness crap, to be honest, I’m sick of hearing all this about concussions in the quiet room. This is what we love to do; guys love to play, they love to compete, and they want to be on the ice. How do you take that away from somebody?” 

Laich was upset because teammate Jay Beagle wasn’t allowed to return to the game Thursday night after being knocked out by Arron Asham of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Laich added, “A player who has concussion symptoms is supposed to be assigned to a quiet room and can’t return to the ice. We accepted that there are going to be dangers when we play this game and you know that every night when you get dressed. … Sometimes it feels like we’re being babysat a little too much. We’re grown men. We should have a little to say in what we do.” 

A recent Globe and Mail editorial (October 6th, 2011) stated: “The NHL shouldn’t make the fans complicit in destroying the brains of the players they love. At a minimum, it should adopt an immediate protocol to give a dressing-room concussion checkup to anyone who takes a punch. There will always be rock ’em in hockey, but the NHL needs to realize that the sock ’em is on its way out.”

Hon. Roy McMurtry: Well, I hope they’re right, and I think it’s great that the Globe and Mail has taken a strong stance. What Laich says reminds me of something that I read many years ago concerning steroid use. At the time I represented Ben Johnson’s coach at the Dubin Inquiry after the ’88 Olympics, and there was a major poll taken in the US about steroid use and young athletes. They asked one question: “Would you be prepared to sacrifice a few years from your life if your steroid use enabled you to win an Olympic medal?” The overwhelming majority said, “Yes.” To me that is analogous to what this young hockey player is saying. He is not thinking it through. Young people tend to have a sense of immortality about them. Mortality is not something they consider. 

Allan Maki of the Globe and Mail (May 20th, 2011) wrote about former enforcer Georges Laraque. He said that Mr. Laraque was worried about the negative influence he was having on the young players. He became more involved in his church and charity work in order to compensate. Most of the players that I have met are saying the same thing. They are very concerned about the possible negative influence that they have on young people, and about the effects of fighting. 

We are dealing with a league that is very badly run, even from a standpoint of protecting their players. I recently received an essay from a mature law student at York University in Toronto. This student had been in the construction industry, and his essay focused upon the relationship between the workplace safety legislation and professional sport violence. He made a good case for the fact that the Province has a legal responsibility to protect players, because the owners are employers and are permitting this nonsense. He argued that sport violence and the related injuries are a breach of current legislation. I’m not sure that any government has the guts to take on the hockey establishment, and this is what worries me.

Dr. Paul Echlin: In the essay “Assault and Battery on the Hockey Rink” posted in Criminal Law (March 9th, 2000) concerning the Donald Brashear and Marty McSorley incident, the league chief legal officer, Bill Daley “... expressed hisdisapproval of the courts’ involvement in the case. With respect to the McSorley incident, he noted that the league had dealt with the matter quickly, decisively and appropriately. In his mind, no further action is warranted.” 

Mr. Daley was also quoted in the "Houston Chronicle" (May 7th, 2000) concerning the differential of violence committed at the professional versus amateur levels: “It’s been a key distinction, with much greater liability at the amateur level. Lawsuits at the professional level could open a Pandora’s Box that we don't want to go into.” 

The counter argument concerning accepted sport violence states that the participants have accepted the risks, and have the right to choose how they behave in the sports arena. What do you think of the idea that professional sport leagues such as the NHL can police themselves, and not be subject to the same criminal code as the average citizen?

Hon. Roy McMurtry: Well, it does apply to them. In 1975 they said the same thing to me, that the criminal law didn’t apply at the NHL hockey games. I think it was absolute, unimaginable stupidity that the sports establishment was spewing in 1975 and 1976. I mean this really is an Alice in Wonderland attitude.

Dr. Paul Echlin: A violent incident happened earlier this year between Zdeno Chara and Max Pacioretty. Chara drove Pacioretty’s head into a post, fracturing his neck and causing serious brain injury. If he had done that act on the street, regardless of whether there was intent, Chara would have been legally responsible. An eight-month police inquiry into this case recently determined that no criminal charges will be laid concerning this on-ice incident. But I am thinking about what Justice Dalton Wells said during a 1953 manslaughter trial that resulted from a death that occurred from an act of on-ice violence: “The arena is not a refuge from the criminal code.”

Hon. Roy McMurtry: Justice Dalton Wells referenced this well; it is a good way to express it. There is a consensual quality about these apparently spontaneous fights. We know that many of them are staged, and so it may not be a criminal assault. 

The prosecutions that were pursued in the 1970’s resulted from muggings: Dan Maloney pounding Brian Glennie’s head into the ice, and the four Philadelphia players who were arrested and charged while they were still in Toronto. They were all photographed, mug shot, and fingerprinted. That sent shockwaves through the NHL. 

My recollection is that things did change at Maple Leaf Gardens. The NHL warned all their teams about this crazy Attorney-General who had police attending the games. They were warned that they had to be careful at Maple Leaf Gardens in the next few years, and I think they did try and crack down a little bit. Five years ago there was this terrible mugging involving the Colorado player Steve Moore by Todd Bertuzzi. That was criminal thuggery. The case is apparently set to come to trial within the next year, depending on whether or not Bertuzzi is playing.

I thought the NHL was being more progressive recently when Brendan Shanahan began handing out significant suspensions and penalties in the pre-session games. It looks as if internal pressure has been brought in to cool down Shanahan and his efforts to make the game safer. I think this is very worrisome. I think it is very important that former players and politicians like Ken Dryden continue to take a stand. I was impressed by the essay Ken wrote in theGlobe and Mail (March 11th, 2011) concerning violence in hockey. It was really quite thoughtful. 

Dr. Paul Echlin: You probably saw the panel that the CBC assembled to discuss this issue recently, immediately after Peter Mansbridge’s special on the pathological effects of multiple hits to the head. The panel consisted of Cassie Campbell, the former National Team Olympic Gold Medallist, Scotty Bowman, Ken Dryden and Elliott Friedman. All these individuals were connected with the NHL or the CBC, and there were no independent panellists. Only one of the panellists stated that we need to think about taking fighting out of the game. 

Hon. Roy McMurtry: Ken Dryden?

Dr. Paul Echlin: Yes, he is the only one that said that fighting should be taken out of the game. He stressed the fact that the permanent brain injury and psychological pain suffered by the athlete who fights should be the primary reason for eliminating fighting in hockey. Ken did not point to violence as the reason for the elimination of fighting in hockey. 

Hon. Roy McMurtry: I think we should keep the focus on the safety and health of the young people who play these games. With the NHL players, I’m sure the majority of them probably don’t like the idea of fighting. They will never admit it … because it would make them appear less manly, and less tough. It’s all kind of sad and pathetic. I’ve talked to a number of NHL enforcers over the years, and I can’t recall a single one who really supported the idea of fighting ... but they wouldn’t say it. They weren’t prepared to go public about it. It is all part of the current accepted sport culture.

Dr. Paul Echlin: In reviewing the long history of serious injuries, there are five documented deaths that have resulted from on-ice fights … the latest being Don Sanderson who was only 20 years old. 

Hon. Roy McMurtry: It is so sad. It was absolutely needless.

Dr. Paul Echlin: There is also a significant history of criminal prosecutions secondary to on-ice violence. They begin in the early 1900’s and continue today. There have been several major reviews of violence in hockey, including your brother’s in 1974. The most recent are Bernie Pascall’s 2000 report entitled Eliminating Violence in Hockey, and the Middlesex London Health Unit’s 2009 report entitled Violence in Amateur Hockey.

Only one question remains: Why have we not enacted some straightforward rule reforms to end the violence, including fighting?

Hon. Roy McMurtry: Hockey is a sport played at high speed with well-conditioned athletes. It is not a question of eliminating checking or body contact, just the unnecessary violence. I don’t know how you would enact meaningful reforms. At the political level, it would be hard to garner the political support because hockey is such a sacred cow. The idea of government imposing reforms on a league or a sport would be difficult. Most governments would state that when it comes to the rules governing sport, the role for government does not extend beyond the criminal code, or the Workplace Safety Act. Governments are often reactive on certain issues depending upon the current political level of support. I look at this issue primarily as a public health issue that involves the youth of our society.

Dr. Paul Echlin: A blunt statement was made recently by NHL league official, Colin Campbell, in the Globe and Mail (April 20th, 2011): “We sell violence.” 

How do you feel about the use of violence as a marketing tool, which was identified in your brother’s report 37 years ago? 

Hon. Roy McMurtry: The NHL simply does not care about the overt violence as long as they are able to put more and more people in the seats. I was disappointed in the current Liberal government backing down on ultimate fighting. There is an indication that they decided to permit it because there was a lot of public support for it. The sad thing, and what makes it such a tough challenge, is that if you brought back the Roman gladiator type of contest, an ultimate fighting in which combatants fight to the death ... or they are fed to the lions afterwards, you would sell out the arena in a half an hour. I sometimes think that the veneer of civilization is so, so thin ….

Dr. Paul Echlin: Have we not evolved from several thousand years ago? Is that what are you are referring to?

Hon. Roy McMurtry: Yes. I am not sure we have evolved. We see terrible atrocities that occur daily around the world. People may be desensitized to the regular violence seen in their community and on the evening news. They may think that if somebody gets hammered in a hockey game, it is not something to worry about. Only when a player’s life is already ruined does the public become aware of the seriousness of sport violence. With the speed of the game and the size of the players, unfortunately there are going to be some serious injuries, but we need to minimize them.

Dr. Paul Echlin: The size of the rink, the speed of players, the size of players, and the equipment are all factors that can contribute to injury prevention. But this doesn’t address the core issue, which is the permitted and often encouraged violence. Violence, as previously defined, is the intent to injure your opponent, or intimidate your opponent with a threat of injury.

Hon. Roy McMurtry: I believe that the attraction to permitted violence is central to this issue….

Dr. Paul Echlin: As a junior level team physician and clinical researcher, I found the lack of direct independent data concerning concussion incidence surprising. There was no independent direct documentation concerning the concussion incidence that I had witnessed and treated at the ice level for ten years. The biggest mystery to me was why someone was not finding the answer. It is a straightforward collection of data exercise to record how many concussions occur, using an internationally recognized protocol that has been available for five years. 

Though it is a straightforward study, there was a great deal of resistance to collecting the data when, two years ago, I followed two junior level teams for one regular season. We found that diagnosed concussions occurred in 36.5% of the games observed. Huge numbers, epidemic proportions, an incidence rate that was seven times higher than previously reported in the literature. This may be why all levels of hockey and other sports (amateur and professional) have been reticent to conduct proper surveillance studies. The NHL recently published a long awaited study concerning concussion incidence data over a 13-year period. The data published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (April 18th, 2011) was not consistently collected under the current internationally accepted protocol. The article stated that each team only sustained two to three concussions per season, or 75–80 total league-wide concussions, which contains over 800 players and 1,200 games.

Why does the NHL not want to reveal the true incidence of these brain injuries regardless of the fact that we now know how to diagnose and treat this injury? 

It reminds me of the Watergate hearings tactic of “Delay, delay, delay. Deny, deny, deny.”

The findings of our study occurred in an environment of heavy cultural resistance. One team quit halfway through this study. 

Hon. Roy McMurtry: Why did they quit?

Dr. Paul Echlin: They quit the study because they did not think doctors should be recommending that players be removed from the game for an evaluation after a probable concussion had been observed. They felt that players should be evaluated after the game, and also only if the coaches thought it was appropriate.

Here are a couple of examples of this resistance: The coach and team captain were in the dressing room encouraging a player with a suspected concussion NOT to be evaluated by a specialist physician present at the game. While the player is being examined by the physician, the coach is saying, “You’re not dizzy, are you? Go out and skate it off.” This is a direct override of a medical diagnosis. There was complicity on the part of the therapist with the team. It just astounds me that the coach has this power over the players, and over the players’ ice time …

Hon. Roy McMurtry: Well they do. My grandchildren play hockey and I would say there is a significant percentage of coaches who are poor role models and mentors. That’s a reality, and this is why nothing significant has happened in the last 40 years. There is a sacred cow dimension to hockey in Canada. It is so strong and the NHL doesn’t care about the protection of the long-term health of the athlete.

Dr. Paul Echlin: How do you define sacred cow?

Hon. Roy McMurtry: Hockey is important to our culture, so much so that is a cultural icon of Canada. Although the sport is changing, the people who value the sport often do not change as rapidly. There is a significantly entrenched opposition to change. 

Thirty-six years after we laid the first charge when I was the Attorney-General, there is a window of opportunity for real social change on this issue. It started to a minor extent with the Bertuzzi incident, but then it really started again with the Sidney Crosby watch, and the three suicides that occurred this past summer. 

Many people hear about these things and take their kids out … I know several individuals who have removed their children from hockey. My friend was saying her 12-year-old son had a concussion or two, so she just took him out of the game. He did not object.

Dr. Paul Echlin: Yesterday, I had an 11-year-old rep hockey player in my office. He had suffered a concussion from an intentional hit from behind to his head, and the mother was extremely distraught. It was the second medically documented concussion of three concussions he had suffered. He is 11 years old, and all of these injuries were from hockey. His mother said, “Now he wants to quit hockey forever ....” The reason he wanted to quit were his injuries, and the checking was that he was exposed to this year at his age level. He said that the coach he played for last year rewarded them for aggressive acts. This is an interesting statement from this articulate young 11 year old, who is now suffering from chronic concussion symptoms.

NHL player (Cal Clutterbuck) punched a referee in the head on November 3rd, 2011, and only received a ten-minute misconduct penalty. No other sport would allow this intentional or unintentional violence to happen to a game official without severe repercussions, including a lengthy suspension. This type of role modelling does affect amateur hockey. 

Three years ago, a junior level official had his carotid artery cut by a player’s skate while he was trying to break up a fight. The official suffered extensive blood loss, and suffered resultant permanent brain injury.

A colleague of mine recently told me that her son refereed a bantam hockey game, and had to break up two flights. He was punched by one of the players. He suspended one of the players, but he couldn`t suspend the other player because he made an error in his report.

Hon. Roy McMurtry: This is very bad.

Dr. Paul Echlin: Where do you think the leadership is concerning the issues of sport violence and the resultant injuries that still exist? 

Hon. Roy McMurtry: Given my political experience, we have to have a powerful network to overcome the current lack of information and resistance on this issue. 

Dr. Paul Echlin: I’ve been a part of two major meetings in the last three years. All came up with the same solutions. The London Hockey Concussion Summit (LHCS) stakeholders meeting Summary Statement in 2009 included nine important recommendations, including the rule changes to eliminate all hits to the head, high hits, hits from behind and fighting. These recommendations were repeated as a consensus statement from a recent Mayo conference on hockey violence in 2010.

Despite the other significant recommendations we made in 2009, the “no fighting” recommendation was the only one that came out in the press because it was the one that most people feared. Before the release of the LHCS stakeholder’s Summary Statement, the NHL sent a letter from their legal council ….

Hon. Roy McMurtry: Oh, really? What did it say?

Dr. Paul Echlin: The letter stated that “with respect to Rule Change Harmonization, the NHL does not agree that ‘rule harmonization’ is necessarily essential for effective brain injury prevention, Further, while some considerations are relevant at all hockey levels, not all necessarily are.” 

I was surprised that they put that on paper. I think that there should be universal rules concerning violence in hockey.  

Hon. Roy McMurtry: The NHL response doesn’t make sense.

Dr. Paul Echlin: I also received a letter from a member of the NHL’s concussion committee that stated, “From a personal standpoint I agree that fighting in hockey leads to concussion and efforts should be made to remove it at all levels of hockey. However, I think that we need to stop short of saying that it causes long-term consequences until we know that to be true.” 

Hon. Roy McMurtry: Why did they say with respect to fighting? Is there no study that shows that fighting in hockey leads to long-term cognitive consequences?

Dr. Paul Echlin: Previously there had not been an independent and direct study that looked at this issue. When we incorporated this into our study two years ago, we found that 24% of the concussions we identified were from fights. 

Also, the McMurtry report in 1974 states that “the conduct and standards of the NHL were having profound effects upon every boy playing amateur hockey and every league regardless of age or standard of competition.” Similar findings came out of the Pascall report in 2000

Why do you think that the public looks to the NHL for leadership to set basic public health policy concerning the violence in hockey and the resultant injuries?” 

Mr. Roy McMurtry: It’s totally irrational. People seem to assume that the NHL is more responsible than they are. “Say it simple, say it often.” And you have to continue to bring the correct message to overcome this resistance.

Dr. Paul Echlin: If the NHL is serious about reducing the number of head injuries, why is an obvious cause of intentional brain trauma such as fighting accepted as part of the game? 

Hon. Roy McMurtry: The NHL rule book is judicious in distinguishing the body check to the head from other contact to the head, treating fighting as its own separate category. For an illegal check, it is necessary that the head be targeted and the principal point of contact. In a fight, is the head not the principal point of contact? What’s the difference between the hit to the head with a fist during a fight, and hit to the head with a shoulder or elbow? This is an example of the totally irrational approach that the NHL takes. They think that the violence is going to put more money in their pockets. It’s entertainment. 

This is a very irresponsible approach. They are lucky that they have a players’ union that has been dysfunctional in recent years. Recently they elected an experienced new executive director who may institute change. I’m certainly not against trade unions, however I believe they have the worst of the trade union mentality. The players’ association really believes that they have a mandate and responsibility to protect the 40 or 50 jobs that go to the enforcers. It defies logic. It is so irrational. But it is what these people believe.

I asked a recently a university researcher, “Have you been able to get any statistics about the participation in amateur hockey starting with the kids and how it’s dropped over the years?” Everyone I’ve spoken to said it has dropped. There seems to be reluctance on the part of various leagues to hand out that information, according to the researcher. The reason that the leagues don’t want to reveal the statistics with respect to the declining participation of young people is that the executives are afraid that this will prevent parents from encouraging their children to play hockey. I think they are worried about this sort of influence growing, and other parents saying, “Well, maybe I should be thinking about whether my child plays hockey?” This is occurring in woman’s hockey as well as men’s hockey.

Dr. Paul Echlin: There has been a documented decline in minor hockey enrolment. It used to be because they thought, “Oh! It’s too expensive.” But expense was not the only issue. It was the violence. These children are now encouraged to play other sports such as soccer or basketball.

Hon. Roy McMurtry: I believe that. The NHL will always find a phony excuse such as cost of the equipment.

Dr. Paul EchlinThe 1995 media watch submission to the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) regarding children and television violence stated that the impact of media violence is no longer in question. Thirty years of research overwhelmingly demonstrates that exposure to media violence correlates with increased fear, increased aggression and desensitization to violence in children. 

Dr. Paul Echlin: What are your thoughts concerning the effect and responsibilities of the media on the youth of our society? 

Hon. Roy McMurtry: I don’t agree with the reluctance to accept the research. I ran into this with the research people that assisted on the Review of the Roots of Youth Violence report that I authored for the Ontario government. I was worried that it would be a distraction because there is nothing that the Ontario government can do really when it comes to violence as entertainment. I remember Bobby Kennedy when he was the Attorney General of the US talking about the negative social impact that violence has when it is viewed as entertainment.

However, there are number of positive steps you can implement to promote the positive aspect of sport, and to get kids engaged in these beneficial activities. 

Dr. Paul Echlin: There is an important quote by Thomas Turko in the McMurtry report concerning the preoccupation with winning at all costs: “The genuine benefit of athletics— health, sociability and developing personal psychological growth, co-operation, loyalty and pride—are being undermined.”

What role do you think that the “win at all costs” concept has on the behaviour of our young athletes?

Hon. Roy McMurtry: The “win at all costs” is a principle that should be avoided. I have often emphasized to my children and grandchildren the importance of balance in life. This applies to athletic competition concerning the lessons of self control learned in defeat as well as victory. To win at all costs I think undermines the value of sport to young people.

When the first charge concerning on-ice violence was laid, King Clancy was furious with me, even though the player was knocked senseless. He would recount the fact that Eddie Shore had knocked him unconscious in the shared corridor from the ice to the dressing room. He thought that hockey was much rougher in the old days. He was a decent guy. King would not accept my view that, while hockey had always been a tough game, only in very recent years had institutionalized violence become a core strategy. I guess he was lucky he was not badly injured in incidents he was involved in.

Dr. Paul Echlin: The Pascall report states that “this ‘violence is part of the game’ social conditioning is somewhat unique to hockey. For the most part, particularly in the sport of hockey, aggression and violence is learned behaviour—cultivated and nurtured by a number of influences not the least of which are the very role models that young players are exposed to—parents, coaches, other players and professional athletes. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” 

The McMurtry report stated that “if you make violence part of the game by the rules, it can just as easily be removed from the game with a few simple rule changes.”

Why is hockey the only sport that encourages the use of physical intimidation outside of the rules as a legitimate tactic?

Hon. Roy McMurtry: I think it is just disgraceful, and when it comes to violence … the contact in football is much greater ... in every single play. There was more contact than you see in the average hockey game, and yet, the players know, they swing a punch, they are out of there … I mean, it just does not make any common sense at all, that we’ve got this warped culture in relation to hockey that we’ve been sold by the NHL for years … They used to say we need fighting because it would be less stick work… It is bloody nonsense. 

Dr. Paul Echlin: A popular argument about removing fighting from hockey was mentioned in your brother’s report: that the elimination of fighting will create more violent acts of retribution.

The McMurtry report gave quotes from players who had experience in playing in college, and in international hockey where fighting was not part of the game. The elimination of fighting not only elevated the importance of hockey skills, but reduced the undesirable aspects of violence including illegal use of the stick.

Also in the McMurtry report, Robert Nadin, an international and Olympic-level referee, said: 

“The misconception that removal of fighting results in the increase in other infractions such as high sticking, spearing, slashing, and hooking is completely groundless. Players learn to restrain themselves. By allowing fighting on the other hand, you do not train an individual to restrain himself, and as a result numerous other infractions occur. Fighting is totally unnecessary and should not be a part of the game, especially at the minor level.” 

If fighting is the spearhead of condoned violence in hockey, do you think this statement by Mr. Nadin is relevant today?

Hon. Roy McMurtry: Well, I think so, absolutely. Fighting, the whole concept of self-denial, is such a significant social problem. There is something about the culture of sport that is very resistant to change.

Dr. Paul Echlin: Yes.

Hon. Roy McMurtry: It is very traditional, and a lot of our great professional athletes tend to be against change. 

Dr. Paul Echlin: Brain injuries exist across all sports and both genders. As the Chairman and CEO of the Canadian Football League (CFL) in the 90’s, how did you feel about the violence in football, and what do you think about today’s CFL attempts to demonstrate real movement toward player safety, particularly the prevention, identification and care of brain injuries?

Hon. Roy McMurtry: I was the Chairman of the League in 1989 and 1990, and nobody talked about concussions, and perhaps we should have. Steroid abuse was discussed because football players use a lot more steroids than track and field people like Ben Johnson. I remember there was a celebrated linebacker for the Oakland Raiders who died at a young age and the cause of death was attributed to the steroid use. I’m embarrassed to say that I could not get the general managers who ran that league to implement compulsory steroid testing, despite the fact that testing had already been introduced into the intercollegiate football. I am surprised that the press didn’t give them more trouble concerning this issue. In those years we were struggling to keep the league alive. Drug testing should have been more of a priority, but the general managers wouldn’t touch the issue with a ten-foot pole. 

I am concerned about all of the players that have been allowed to play with concussions. A recent example is a great quarterback like Montreal Alouettes’ Anthony Calvillo who sustained a concussion, and he is back up two days later taking repetitions. I think the experience with steroids many years ago is repeated today with concussions.

I think a lot of people associated with hockey and football, both at amateur and professional levels, are frightened by concussions and the long-term impairment that can result — and the current pending class action litigation.

Dr. Paul Echlin: Someone has to stand up and say we have made mistakes in the past. We are going to have to change the way we play sports such as hockey and football. We are still going to play football, but we are not going to go head-to-head anymore. 

A medical colleague watching a football game said, “We stand on the sidelines and watch train wrecks happen every time you witness a kickoff return. If we looked carefully, would see three or four individuals that could be injured, and should be evaluated.” 

Hon. Roy McMurtry: I guess that’s why the NFL wanted to discourage to some extent the kick-off returns.

Dr. Paul Echlin: They also said that they’d have an independent neurologist on the sidelines, and I don’t think that worked out too well.

Hon. Roy McMurtry: No.

Dr. Paul Echlin: Just last week a New York State high school football player died (Oct 15, 2011 Globe and Mail) of second impact syndrome, secondary to repeated brain trauma. This is the second or third time this fall that we’ve had the death of a 16- or 17-year old because he did not get identified and taken out of the game.

Hon. Roy McMurtry: Yes…that’s sad.

Dr. Paul Echlin: Why do you think there is such resistance to believe that these recurrent brain injuries do not alter individual’s behaviour? Why is there an ambivalence concerning the three hockey players that committed suicide this year? Why is there a resistance to evaluate the current evidence?

Hon. Roy McMurtry: Well, I think lot of people in professional sports including the sport writing establishment are afraid that the game will become less interesting if their star players are not allowed to play because of injuries. I suspect that one of our human predicaments and failures is that it is relatively easy to talk ourselves into a state of denial. I think a lot of the people just don’t want to hear about it.

Dr. Paul Echlin: When asked what we can do about violence and the resultant brain injuries, the first suggestion I have is to educate and empower all individuals at the grassroots level. I would focus on parents — these are the individuals who can make a difference. 

I always tell the story of the parent who phoned me for assistance concerning his son. His story was that he was watching his son’s minor hockey game. He witnessed his son getting hit from behind in the head, fall to the ice and then hit his head again. He knew something was wrong. The kid struggled to the bench, sat there for a bit and the coach was about to put him back on the ice. The father ran down to the bench, grabbed him by the shoulder pads, took him into the dressing room, and got him out of there. 

He said that he didn’t know what was wrong, but he knew something was wrong. The diagnosis was clear for a brain injury. If that parent hadn’t been empowered by his own parental instinct his child might have suffered an injury that would have affected the rest of his life.

Hon. Roy McMurtry: The coach would`ve shoved him back on the ice. There needs to be a lot more education for the coaches as well as the parents. 

Dr. Paul Echlin: Often, when the hockey parent comes into my office with his or her injured child on the first visit, they challenge my diagnosis. Primarily this occurs because some of the parents don’t have an understanding of the seriousness of this injury, and secondly, they are unhappy that a long recovery time will mean a disruption in their established familial schedules. 

Several months later, when the child is still experiencing concussion symptoms, parents are in a state of complete grief and guilt concerning their previous lack of understanding of concussion, and attitudes toward the importance of sport. These parents often get too caught up in supporting the athletic excellence of their child, and lose site of the primary importance of their child’s long-term health.

You have been intimately involved with youth violence outside of the sporting arena. What are your thoughts on sport mentorship programs, and behaviour contracts for parents, coaches and executives concerning sportsmanship and violence in sports?

Mr. Roy McMurtry: I have always believed in the concept of mentorship as long as you have the right mentors. Many coaches and parents believe in “win at all costs.” I think that behaviour contracts are a good idea. Occasionally, there are stories of leagues that bar parents entirely.

Dr. Paul Echlin: You are known as an individual who can pull people together on divisive issues. How do you think that people can be brought together to create effective change concerning the elimination of violence in the sports we play?

Mr. Roy McMurtry: You really need a large network. These issues are deeply entrenched. I used to say, “Soften one kid at a time.” It is still a worthwhile approach. It is a question of somehow keeping the network going, and you need cooperative efforts. Having said that, however, I’m sceptical because of the cultures of institutional silos and governments. 

That’s why the whole focus has to be on health, and not on criminal offence. I believe someone has to provide leadership on a national basis. The medical community has a lot of credibility with the public, and if the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) can be convinced to form a standing national committee on this important issue, we may get a breakthrough sooner than we think. Government from time to time becomes interested in this issue, just as it was interested in William’s Investigation and Inquiry into Violence in Amateur Hockey report in 1974. 

Dr. Paul Echlin: Yes … the Sudbury MP Glenn Thibeault has reintroduced a concussion related bill now … but may have difficulty gaining support due to the provincial health jurisdiction. … I recently met with the Ontario Minister of Health concerning the importance of government involvement in the improved public awareness and care of sport concussion. 

Hon. Roy McMurtry: It is interesting that our Prime Minister Steven Harper talks about himself as a great lover of hockey; he could demonstrate leadership on this issue. I think the multi-disciplinary political, legal, medical, educational and sociological approach cannot and should not be ignored. 

Dr. Paul Echlin: A cultural shift on this important public health issue has to go forward.

Hon. Roy McMurtry: We should not be at all intimidated, but the reality is that significant change to reduce hockey violence may be incremental … as long as it has some traction. 

Dr. Paul Echlin: I would like to finish this interview with your thoughts of the positive aspects of sport. As a former elite athlete as well as a distinguished advocate for children, what do you think are the positive effects of sport? 

Hon. Roy McMurtry: I love sports, particularly football and hockey. I enjoyed playing these sports, and found them to be a profound learning experience. I think that social and individual development learned through the sport is important. For 12 years I led a Commonwealth committee on sport relations. Our first job was to set out a new blueprint for the Commonwealth Games. Through this work I became very interested in the whole idea of sports as it related to individual development. Self-confidence, interpersonal co-operation, development of gender equality and antiracism were qualities found to result from sport participation. I think that a lot of governments, both in the developing and developed world, underestimate the value of sport when it comes to individual development. Too many people may think that sport is sort of a thrill of some kind, which should be addressed only after all of the more so-called fundamental needs. 

Nelson Mandela has said on many occasions that children have the right to play games. I believe in the importance of sports, and the value it has to our culture. Anyone who has played a team sport, in particular, knows that you can’t take yourself too seriously in the dressing room or amongst your teammates. Vince Lombardi said that more character is developed on the one-yard line than anywhere else in life, and there is an element of truth to that.

The 1951 University of Toronto championship football team, of which I was the captain, recently held a 60-year reunion. It is amazing that 60 years have passed; I hadn’t seen many of my former teammates for years. It was almost as if we had been together yesterday. This is the social bond of sport. You learn not to take yourself too seriously and you learn teamwork. Some of these things may seem corny and trite to some people, but they have a fundamental importance when it comes to human relations. I believe very strongly that core values can be learned through sport.

Dr. Paul Echlin: I really appreciate your perspective on this important public health and sport issue. Thank you very, very much.

Mr. Roy McMurtry: You are most welcome.

Designed by Chris Anderson