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 his disapproval 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 lawdidn’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.

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.

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: 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.

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.

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.