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Ice hockey brings a taste of North America to Melbourne

At a Manhattan comedy club in 1978, Rodney Dangerfield told his audience, "I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out." At Rod Laver Arena on Friday, during game four of what was promoted as an international series between Canada and the USA, a fight broke out after two minutes and fourteen seconds. After three minutes, when the fight ended, Canada took the puck down the ice and scored the first goal. 

Throughout this bizarre event, it was never clear how much of the show was about hockey, and how much of it was about the unveiling of one promoter's dream to bring the North American style to Australia. The whole thing seemed to teeter on the edge of silliness and irrelevance, but nonetheless managed to entertain and intrigue.

The series promoter, Craig Douglas, has an obvious passion for American showmanship and melodrama – he's also worked to bring the Crusty Demons motorbike daredevils to Australia and New Zealand – and his efforts to simulate the American scene were admirable for the most part.

Much of Douglas' show was a harmless extravaganza of fire and sound, aside from two obscene canon shot sounds, which surprised out of the pitch dark and sent a bolt of pain through every skull in the stadium. But otherwise, the event leaned on all the usual American processes, which might be described as a committed resistance to calm.

On the "jumbo-tron" were Dance Cam and Kiss Cam, both of which manage to reach inside the unsuspecting subjects of the wandering camera, and withdraw ideas and movements that would normally be reserved for the privacy of a bedroom. Most of us, it appears, are trying to contain an urge to gyrate on something and rub our nipples.

Whenever in the midst of these camera games, one feels both compelled to watch the screen, and also to look away from it, so as not be called on to participate. In one way, all of this is frivolous, but it always gets a huge communal response. And so does a fight.


Contributing to the uncertainty about what matters in the series, is the apparent conflict between the promoter's big-screen promise of war and fighting, and the advertising of the "Stop Concussions" organisation, a group that travels with the series in order raise funds and awareness for brain injuries among athletes.

Ice hockey, in a quirk of sporting history, is the now the only professional sport that has sanctioned bare-knuckle fighting. The last bare-knuckle boxing bout was outlawed in the US in 1889. So, at least for the new hockey audience, the brawl remains a novelty, even a highpoint of a game's entertainment.

Interactive: Ice hockey beginner's guideInteractive Ice Hockey beginner's guide

The crowd at Rod Laver Arena was expecting a fight, and the evidence for this was in its cheerful response to any player that threw down and took a swing. Presumably the allure of seeing a fight at a hockey match makes life difficult for the Stop Concussions group.

Its co-founder, Kerry Goulet, suffered a series of concussions during his playing career, and the effects of these, he says, brought him to write a book about concussions to help raise awareness in athletes. He says hockey's fighting rule is problematic, but he expects fighting in the NHL to be banned in four or five years.

"It's not like switching on a light, and changing everything at once," Goulet said. "We are trying to start a conversation, it takes time. The fighting is not like it used to be. At the Olympics there is no fighting. It's a more pure game now."

Goulet also suffered from depression. He says he received upwards of 300 stitches in his face and torso during his career, and that his goal now is to have athletes improve their techniques in sports where collisions and tackling occur.

Improving dangerous techniques is, ironically, the job of the hockey enforcer, who is sent on to to ice to punish an opposition player for raising a stick, or rough-housing one his teammates.

"Those guys are still around," Goulet said. "They know what they are in for, but we want to keep educating teams and gathering information so we can properly assess what's happening to them, and how we should manage any head injuries."

The fog of concussion, as it is known, is an apt metaphor for the field of study and research it belongs to. The NHL brain bank has performed only a handful of tests, and Goulet acknowledges the difficulty of making conclusions without much evidence.

"We need to stop people from jumping up and down about small things, and start gathering stories and experiences to understand it better."

In 2011, the New York Times ran a long story investigating the life and death of former NHL "enforcer", Derek Boogaard, who succumbed to pain-killing drugs and depression at 29. Boogaard was paid $1.5 million a season not to play hockey, but to intimidate, and to endure fights on behalf of others.

Boogaard's story was, in many ways, the story of every enforcer and hockey player who is compelled by loyalty and pride to commit to a fight on the ice.

"Boogaard kept playing hurt," Goulet said. "We want to stop that from happening."

Friday's exhibition at Rod Laver Arena ended as it began, with a bang of colour and light, and two huge men fighting for balance against a wall, trying to land a punch.