While most professional ice hockey games come with a healthy dose of fighting, new research suggests that the behavior may be shortening some hockey players’ lives.
The study, led by Charles Popkin, a specialist in orthopedic sports medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, found that “enforcers”– or players who took part in a lot of fighting– tended to die at younger ages and from different causes, as opposed to their peers.
During the study period, 45 players died. And those who were “enforcers” were approximately 10 years younger at their time of death as compared to other players.
The causes of death also varied and were disproportionately due to car accidents, drug overdose, suicide, and even degenerative brain disease in two cases.
But, the researchers did note that these findings do not prove that recurrent fights on the ice caused the players’ deaths.
“This study is just showing associations, not cause and effect. But it does show that if you’re an NHL ‘fighter,’ you’re dying 10 years earlier and from different causes than other players,” said Popkin.
For the study, the team used time in the penalty box and fights as proxies for the time players were exposed to repetitive head impacts.
Data from over 6,000 NHL players, who were active in the league from 1967 to 2022, was collected. The researchers then identified a group of enforcers– totaling 331 players– who had a minimum of 50 career fights on record.
Additionally, the team identified 183 enforcers who spent an average of at least three minutes in the penalty box each game.