The effects of head trauma on hockey players — particularly the “enforcers” who embrace the game’s more physical and even violent side — has been the source of a lot of scrutiny in recent years. Some of that has come in the wake of the deaths of prominent players, including Derek Boogaard in 2011. Other enforcers have exhibited other signs of chronic illness. A 2016 New York Times article on Stephen Peat focused on the physical and mental health issues Peat experienced once his NHL career had ended, likely as a result of concussions.
Now, the results of a scientific study have some details on the physical toll of being an enforcer, and it’s sobering. According to a study of over 6,000 hockey players recently published in Jama Network Open, being an enforcer can shorten your lifespan by up to 10 years.
The study’s authors write that their findings suggest that enforcers — defined as NHL players “with 50 or more career fights or 3 or more penalty minutes per game” — die 10 years earlier than their counterparts on average. Even more unsettling are the circumstances, which are “more often of drug overdose and suicide when compared with age-matched NHL player controls.”
The study examined 6039 hockey players who spent time in the NHL from 1967 to 2022. And while the death rates are relatively similar, the earlier deaths of enforcers were “consistent with CTE pathology, including suicide, substance abuse, and motor vehicle crashes.”
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As Linda Searing writes at The Washington Post, the study represents something of a call to action for the NHL. It’s a sobering look at the long-term effects of fighting in hockey, and it begs the question of whether hockey’s culture is in need of a change — and whether the sport needs to move beyond the days of enforcers.