'Ice Wars' drawing heavy criticism despite focus on fighter safety

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Hunter Warner (79) is one of the participants in Ice Wars. (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)
Hunter Warner (79) is one of the participants in Ice Wars. (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

As comedian Rodney Dangerfield said, “I went to a fight the other night, and a hockey game broke out.”

When the first punch is thrown at the inaugural Ice Wars event this month, there will be little risk of a hockey game breaking out, despite the fact the fighters will be in full hockey equipment.

Ice Wars is an attempt by president and founder A.J. Galante to create a new combat sport combining components of boxing and on-ice hockey fights.

“This is prize fighting on ice,” said Galante. “It’s a play on something that has been part of hockey lore and tradition… but it’s not hockey. It’s not going to be for everyone, but I believe there is a huge market for it, and I believe we’re going to do something special.”

Galante, who now works as a boxing manager and promoter in Danbury, Connecticut, came to fame as the teenage president of the Danbury Trashers, a United Hockey League team from 2004 to 2006. The team, which was featured in the Netflix documentary Untold: Crime and Penalties, was backed by Galante’s father James Galante, who was a mafia-connected businessman involved in the trash hauling industry and various criminal activities.

Ice Wars’ first event is scheduled for May 21 at the River Cree Resort & Casino in Edmonton, featuring an eight-man heavyweight “King of The Rink” tournament. Each fight will consist of two rounds and will be judged should a knockout not occur.

According to 12-year NHL veteran and longtime NBC hockey broadcaster Chris Therien, who will serve as an announcer for the event, there has always been an interest in fighting among fans and hockey players alike.

“There’s always been that interest even among players,” said Therien. “I think that was what the league once was, where guys got brought into the fold, they were raised by this largely violent league, where the masculinity had to shine through, and the players that survived in the league were the ones that were groomed by their predecessors… this was a tough, macho league where you don’t take any crap from anybody.”

Sport sociologist Dr. Cheryl MacDonald believes this type of event, and the focus on fighting as a stereotypically “masculine” action, is unhealthy.

“This method of an athlete or man proving himself is becoming incompatible with the kinds of healthy masculinity and mental wellness that are typically prioritized in society today,” said Dr. MacDonald.

Therien acknowledges the game and society’s view of violence in hockey has changed in recent decades, and that Ice Wars will face detractors because of this.

“There are people that like table tennis, and there are people that like combat sports. I like both,” said Therien, who in his NHL career with the Philadelphia Flyers fought noted enforcers including Brad May, Jeff Odgers, Matthew Barnaby and Kris King. “You’re not going to please everybody on both sides… a lot of people are not going to like the idea.”

One such person is brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) specialist Dr. Chris Nowinski, who is the founding CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

“I'll be blunt: Ice Wars is a very bad idea when it comes to the health and safety of participants,” Dr. Nowinski said. “Boxing is dangerous enough for the brain, but adding the virtual guarantee of fighters hitting their head on the ice when they are knocked out makes it more potentially life-altering or even lethal than other combat sports.

"I don't support fighting in the NHL, but at least we know players are well-paid and receive compensation when acute injuries end careers.”

According to Galante, however, fighter safety is a focus of Ice Wars. All fighters will participate in pre- and post-fight medicals, helmets will feature reinforced straps in an attempt to keep head protection on, and MMA style gloves will be worn compared to hockey’s bareknuckle fights.

“We’re taking as much precaution as possible,” said Galante. “You’re conducting a combat sport, you want exciting fights, you want entertainment, you want fun… but from the forefront… for everyone involved, player safety has been the number one thing. We’re putting player safety first, I think we’re safer than the current NHL.”

In the NHL, commissioner Gary Bettman has openly denied and dismissed the links between head trauma suffered in hockey and CTE. Despite his claims, the number of now-deceased former NHL enforcers being diagnosed with CTE continues to rise. That list includes Bob Probert, Derek Boogaard, Jeff Parker, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, Todd Ewen and Steve Montador.

In 2018, the NHL was forced to pay $18.9 million to settle a class action lawsuit by more than 100 ex-NHL players who accused the NHL of "failing to better prevent head trauma or warn players of risks while promoting violent play that led to their injuries.” That violent play included fighting.

“Gary Bettman denies that concussions are almost real,” Therien said. “One thing [Ice Wars] has done is exceed the safety standards that the NHL has currently in place. There’s CTE, there’s no denying any of these things, but at the same time we’re doing what we can to try to evolve what may be a new sport and have the best safety procedure, the gloves and the helmets, which the current NHL still doesn’t have in place.”

Therien knows the impact of head trauma. During and following his NHL career, he dealt with substance abuse and mental health issues, which he attributes not to fighting, but to other blows to the head he suffered playing hockey.

“I’m someone that had addiction issues, I did not have addiction issues because of punches to the head, I had addiction issues because I’ve been hit really hard, my head hit the ice, I’ve been banged into the boards,” he explained.

Despite efforts to mitigate risk, according to Galante, in combat sports, whether it is boxing or on-ice prize fighting, the chance for injury exists.

“This isn’t cock fighting, we actually put a lot of thought in, and looked at a lot of data. Of course, there’s always going to be that inherent danger, this isn’t ballet,” said Galante. “These guys know what they’re getting into, but trust me, no one is hoping anyone gets hurt, but it’s, unfortunately, the nature of a combat sport.”

It is not the first time in history such an event has occurred. In 2005, Battle of the Hockey Enforcers featured more than a dozen ex-professional and junior hockey fighters. Injuries occurred in the event, including to former NHL enforcer Link Gaetz, who was forced to withdraw following his lone fight after suffering “concussion-like” symptoms from a pair of knock downs.

Today, fighting in hockey is on the decline. In the early 2000s, it was common to see upwards of 40 percent of NHL games feature at least one fight. In 2019-20, that percentage hit an all-time low with only 13.5 percent of games involving a fight.

The creation of Ice Wars, as Dr. MacDonald says, is a way, through fighting, to preserve hockey’s toxic and violent past despite society’s growing intolerance for such behaviours in sport.

“This event reflects the fist fight as one of the last bastions of hypermasculinity that certain hockey traditionalists are determined to preserve,” Dr. MacDonald said. “Because this behaviour is less welcome in the sport today, it must be transported to a more niche audience on the periphery of contemporary hockey culture in order to succeed.”

As with any new venture, nothing is certain, and the success of on-ice combat sports could be determined by what happens after the first punch is thrown this month. It’s an unpredictable future, filled with risk, that Therien knows will play out with every swing of the fist.

“I’m going to go out and celebrate these guys that night, and pray and hope that nobody gets seriously hurt, but this is a bad boy club at the end of the day,” he said.

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