Cook: Is change in store for NHL?

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Penguins forward Mike Rupp was on vacation with his wife and three kids in Magic Kingdom at Disney World when he got the news. Suddenly, The Happiest Place On Earth seemed a lot less happy.

"It's awful," Rupp said of the death of New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard. "Really scary."

Boogaard, 28, was found in his Minneapolis apartment May 13. Medical examiners ruled Friday that the cause of death was an accidental mixture of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone, but the story doesn't end there. Boogaard didn't play this season after he took a punch Dec. 9 from Ottawa's Matt Carkner. It was at least his fourth concussion. His family members are suspicious enough that his death was tied to his head injuries that they donated his brain to Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. That's the outfit that is studying the long-term effects of sports concussions on athletes. In March, it determined that NHL enforcer Bob Probert had degenerative brain disease when he died in July at 45.

It's safe to say Penguins star Sidney Crosby is following the Boogaard story closely. He didn't play this season after Jan. 5 because of concussion symptoms.

Rupp also is watching intently. He led the Penguins the past two seasons with a total of 24 fights.

"If [Boogaard's death] is linked to fighting, it could change the face of hockey," Rupp said. "I would think the league would have to look to go down that road [to banning fighting]."

Rupp has mixed feelings. He knows the players take risks when they drop their gloves. "A lot of bad things can happen. Guys are so much bigger and stronger." But he also fears what the NHL would be like without fighting. "I think the violence in the sport would hit a new level. It would be worse."

Rupp is hardly a hockey goon -- he has good skills for a man 6-foot-5, 245 pounds -- but he became more of a fighter after he was released by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2006. "I was a No. 1 draft choice and had scored some big goals, but I knew I had to do something to make myself different." He had 55 fights during the next five seasons. According to hockeyfights.com's scorecard, his record in those fights was 24-22-9.

"There have been times I've been dropped with one punch," Rupp said. "There have been times I've felt the aftereffects for a week. Is that a concussion? I don't know ...

"I guess I don't think about the risks. You can't think about it. If that's in the back of your mind, it's going to be difficult to do what you have to do. That's why it's probably best not to think about it."

Rupp admits that's getting harder to do. The news about Probert was sobering for many NHL players. Now, there's Boogaard, a man Rupp never fought but one he said he greatly respected for his toughness on the ice and his kindness and charity work off it.

"He sure wasn't one of those guys you volunteered to fight," Rupp said of Boogaard, who was 6-foot-7, 257 pounds. "You'd never just say to him, 'Hey, Boogie, you wanta go?' You'd watch him to make sure he didn't do anything stupid, but you just hoped he would be sleeping the night you played against him."

Rupp mentioned former NHL enforcer Riley Cote, an opponent he did fight frequently. "I remember when I was younger telling teammates, 'If I'm a fan, I'm paying to watch Riley Cote fight.' He's not the biggest guy in the league, but he puts his head out there every night. Some of the older guys said to me, 'Yeah, it's good, but you can't do that very long.' Now, Riley Cote isn't playing anywhere. What is he? 28? 29?"

Rupp also talked about Toronto Maple Leafs tough guy Colton Orr -- another frequent foe -- who was dropped by Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland with one punch in a fight in October. "I had never seen Colton Orr get one-punched before this year. Carkner did it to him once or twice. Engelland did it. Someone else did it ... Is it a recurring thing? Do you get to the point where you can take less and less? That's scary to me."

The sellout crowd at Consol Energy Center roared when Engelland knocked out Orr. The Penguins used the punch as a regular highlight on the arena scoreboard the rest of the season. It was a big hit -- literally and figuratively -- every night. Clearly, fighting still sells in the NHL.

But what if there's a connection between Boogaard's death and the hits he took to the head from fighting? That might be hard to prove, but let's assume the doctors can do it. Wouldn't the league have to look into banning fighting? From a legal standpoint if not a moral standpoint?

What would happen to the NHL then?

"I think the alternative [of no fighting] would be worse," Rupp said.

Rupp talked of "cowardly" players taking cheap shots at the league's star players. "A lot of guys will think they're tougher and meaner than they really are because they'll know there won't be any repercussions."

Rupp also said he would worry about an increase in other forms of violence on the ice. He mentioned Marty McSorley hitting Donald Brashear over the head with his stick in 2000 and Todd Bertuzzi sucker-punching Steve Moore from behind in 2004.

"We're grown men skating at who knows how many miles per hour," Rupp said. "We're allowed to hit each other into a wall. We have a weapon in our hands. We're shooting a weapon. We have weapons on our feet ... There are moments when you just get enraged. It happens. Unfortunately, you react sometimes. Fighting is probably the best way to let it out. If you can't fight ... "

Rupp said he's grateful to the Boogaard family for making the decision to donate Boogaard's brain to science. "It means a lot that they're doing something to try to make the game safer for the players." He said he will continue to read up on concussions and their long-term impact. He wants to know more.

Of course, Rupp already knows more than he ever imagined after watching Crosby's struggles this season after taking two hits to the head that weren't fight-related.

"I guarantee you Sid will be watching how this plays out," he said of the Boogaard tragedy.

Every NHL player should.

The future of their sport is at stake.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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