Man oh man do I feel really bad for these guys — and for you and me too. Bad for them because they are the ones going through the trauma of the head injury and all the terrible symptoms that follow with the diagnosis of a concussion. It is one thing to lose the ability to stick handle a puck, take a check at center ice without feeling like your brains got scrambled, or even jump the boards for your next shift. That’s the game. It is totally a whole different story when you forget where your daughter’s school is, what date your wife’s birthday falls on, or even the desire to get out of bed in the morning — that’s life.
What else is awful about the concussion plague spreading around the hockey community? Well the fact that these players have devoted so much time, energy, and life into getting to the top professional league of the hockey world and in a moments flash the dream is or could be gone. How the hell would you feel if since age 4-5 you have been skating and where told no more. How the hell would you feel if you have been traveling all-around North America and beyond since the squirt/atom or pee wee days only to have your life-long dream in the NHL cut short. How the hell would you feel about all the sacrifice and commitment your family made over the years so you could do the thing you love, now perhaps just a distant memory.
What about the feelings if you couldn’t just do the simple things in life for your loved ones or even yourself. No more picking up your baby girl after coming home from work because your body is unbalanced now. No more playing knee hockey with your son and his buddies since the lightest physical excersion causes headaches. No more being able to attend a holiday party since the noise level creates an uncomfortable ringing sound between your ears.
The NHL has been hit with some unfortunate news in recent weeks. Just when hockey thought the light at the end of the tunnel was reached when the National Hockey League’s icon, Sidney Crosby, returned from a 11-month hiatus. All due to a severe concussion. But the Canadian hockey wizard is now back on the self after just eight games played this season all because his mind isn’t right — again.
Now more names are joining the list of unfortunates like Chris Pronger, Jeff Skinner, Milan Michalek, Joni Pitkinen, Kris Letang, Brayden Schenn, Brian Rolston, Radek Martinek, Guillaume Latendresse, Mike Sauer, Jesse Winchester, Kurt Sauer, Zbynek Michalek, Nathan Gerbe, Andy McDonald, Al Montoya, and now the recently added Colby Armstrong, Shea Weber, and John-Michael Liles. Let’s not forget the career enders of Brett & Eric Lindros, Ian Laperriere, Pat LaFontaine, Paul Kariya, and Keith Primeau to name a few. Plus current players who have at one time or another experienced concussions or still have the lingering effects: Claude Giroux, David Perron, Patrice Bergeron, Peter Mueller, Mike Richards, Marc Staal, Marc Savard, and Ryan Miller — again only a small fraction of the total.
So who’s next? It seems every night you watch a game these days there is a suspension because a vicious hit to the head or illegal check-from-behind. But the worst result of it all is the fact that another player is scratched from the line-up and who knows for how long.
No I get it! This is NHL hockey and player’s jobs are on the line everyday. Hockey is a very aggressive and sometimes violent sport with great pressure to perform on players. It is a sport, but it is also very much a business too. The business standpoint is the part whereby NHL Officials need to adjust and adjust swiftly in order to curb this crisis.
Slowing It Down
The center ice line was eliminated because fans wanted more scoring. So the rules were changed to open up the ice and create a faster game with more flow and lamp lighting. Today it is a skating man’s game and I too love to see skill and speed over the pre-strike clutch-n-grab days. Great idea initially though the results might be a factor in the rise in concussions.
It now seems if you even breath on an opponent in the NHL, the arm goes up and the whistle is blown. Sure the blantant hooks, holds, and interferences need to be called although the smaller infractions may need to be allowed in the game again. These quant, smart, little, defensive plays slow the speed down enough throughout all areas of the ice, thus limiting unnecessary head contact.
We are even seeing the goalies in the NHL getting the short end of the stick. Miller, Montoya, and Jimmy Howard are the latest victims of players running into goalies leaving the net minders seeing stars instead of pucks. Again this issue might ultimately be a result of today’s lightning quick pace. Or perhaps players knowing they’ll get away with it. Regardless, more attention will be paid by the players with the hand-outs of more penalties and stiffer suspensions.
Just because things in the neutral zone would be slowed down, don’t think for a minute scoring will fly out the window. Now the blue line trapping and congesting in front of the net will subside resulting in less blocked shots and scoring would hopefully return to the pre-lockout days. Ah! More scoring and less collision, might be something to think about!
Like with all rule changes or proposals you will hear the good and the bad. Some say it will take out the true competition for the puck and leave judgment fully in the hands of the linesman that could end up altering the outcome of the game. Others feel that with the touch-up icing rule now that injuries are just waiting to happen and have happened with serious damage. Just go ask Kurtis Foster or Taylor Fedun.
Hockey is a physical, demanding sport on the mind and body. Nobody should reinvent the wheel with rule changes to take away the purity of the game. Just like auto racing, there is a certain level of risk when players step out on the ice. Although how many times in a game does icing change the end result. All calls have an affect on the game whether icing, tripping, or a goal being disallowed. Come on, let’s create a working environment whereby defenseman don’t have to peel their bodies and head from plexiglass like cartoon characters from “Tom & Jerry”.
Bigger Means Better?
This idea is definitely a tough sell from the business standpoint and for areas around the league. Why not kick around the notion of the ice surface being expanded. A hybrid sized rink between the National Hockey League’s dimensions and the IIHF Olympic size. It may be time for the league and owners to suck it up and invest before there are no players left at all. The game is changing with player size, speed, and equipment now may be the time to ‘live in the now’. Nobody seems to like change, especially when it ain’t broke. But from where I’m sitting, the NHL has definitely made contact with the wall and has blown front right as caution is out.
Yes, I understand that this will cost millions in renovations and can not be done overnight. Logistically and financially this is a nightmare. Permission of arena ownership would need approval since other venues are hosted in all rinks throughout the league. Nonetheless it is more of a selfish and greedy road bump if anything.
Look at the long-term effect if change is not made. Say Sidney Crosby doesn’t play and players like him only come down the pipeline every blue moon. So are those seats going to be filled anyway? Are people going to keep purchasing the jerseys of their favorite player if his career is over before it fully started? When your superstar players are sidelined is it good for marketing and sales of the NHL and their respective teams? No, no, and no! So in essence sacrifice now or pay the price as the snowball continues its downward course. There is no question hockey fans come to see the Crosbys, Ovchekins, Datsuyks, Sedins, Kanes, Toews, Girouxs, and Kessels of the league. Yes revenues will take a bit of a hit initially, but the larger picture will see the greatest outcome as the studded stars will be able to shine.
Take a look at some of the concussions and head injuries lately. Many of them might have been avoided if the rink size in the NHL was larger. Coincidence maybe, but maybe not. Common sense would tell us that with more space between players it would equate to less contact. Contact that would be deemed unnecessary, not the body checks with good hockey intent in legal fashion. Some of these head injuries are being caused because of the lack of room and are truly accidental. If you know you could diminish the amount of injuries in any way and ultimately help grow the game’s safety of the players wouldn’t you act — not react. There are smart enough businessmen in the NHL to see the king, better known as ROI — Return on Investment.
Dropping the Mitts
Fighting. Oh yes, the most talked about aspect of the game by the most uneducated fan. Listen the next time you are in the stands. People don’t discuss, cheer, and spill their beer over the crafty saucer pass made from blue-to-blue line, nor do they go “goo-goo ga-ga” over the splendid puck movement around and through the box on the power-play. Nope, nope. It’s the boxing match in which a hockey game breaks out. Again, it fills seats and sells concessions because many feel that it is the most exciting part of hockey.
Now many players will argue that fighting is a historical part of the game while neurologist are now trying to piece concrete evidence that fighting can lead to CTE, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. A progressive degenerative disease found in people who have been subjected to multiple concussions. The symptoms may show effects of dementia, aggression, and depression which may occur shortly after or even years down the road.
So what is a sport to do, just rid of an integral part of the game? If you are not a hockey connoisseur then you go to the games to watch the heavy weight, enforcers battle it out like the Roman days — or you’re either a “puck bunny” haha. Action needs to be taken for sure. Not so sure total banishment is the answer. The NHL may want to abolish the “staged fights”. The ones where coaches throw out their two tough guys on the wing right before the face-off. Yeah you know where it’s an used equipment sale on the ice before the referee even attempts to drop the puck.
What about limiting the players to a cap in the number of fights they can par take in per season? Ah! So the next time a guy wants to drop the gloves against unfair opponent or for no reason at all, he will think twice or his season is history. It’s kind of like budgeting your money. Though it doesn’t fully eliminate potential stress to the head though it should substantially lower the numbers.
Fighting is a part of the game and does serve a purpose to a team at particular moments in the heat of competition. But let’s keep the skill in the game, not the barbaric episodes.
Equipment Not Armor-All
There is no question equipment needs modification. Before people were hurting their shoulders and elbows, thus hockey equipment manufacturers starting producing more durable and protecting products. The problem is it went a little too overboard.
Today the shoulder and elbow pads are like a suit of armor from the Renaissance Period and players know it. Now they deliberately stick out their arm or guide their shoulder to the head of the oppenent because they know it won’t hurt them, but will in fact cripple their opponent.
Let’s bring back ‘Old Time Hockey’ and the days of patent leather. Something where the contact is with padded equipment not a sheet of metal. I’m sure the people over at Bauer, Reebok/CCM, or Easton can research & develop new gear fairly quickly. Especially if the NHL helps fund the project.
Cascade Sports and The Messier Project have already designed a better helmet to help cushion the hits to the head. There is no question with today’s advanced technology the game of hockey can be made safer. Now a company, Impakt Protective, Inc.has manufactured a sensor that attaches to the helmet and links to one’s smart phone to instantly produce data and alert when a player suffers a traumatic head impact that may be concussive. Trainers, coaches, and parents now have effective information at their fingertips that greatly assists with concussion management. The time is now to use technology for player’s safety advantage and it wouldn’t hurt to keep that mouthguard in either.
Knowledge is King
Now this leads to probably the most important aspect in healing the concussion cancer that is spreading not only in the NHL, but also in college, juniors, prep/high school, and throughout the youth hockey leagues around the globe. The proper coaching and education of legal body checking and the drastic effects of erroneous head shots, charging, boarding, and checking-from-behind.
Players in the NHL are doing what they are doing illegally because they have one, never been properly exposed to the correct fundamentals throughout their minor hockey career. The second hypothesis is they have never been severely punished by their league, association, team, coach, or parent for inappropriate actions on the ice. They are committing crime without serving the time. Pretty sure once you make it to the NHL you know how to properly throw a body check — or at least I hope. So this leads me to believe that they have always gotten away with it.
Do you honestly think David Steckel when he was with the Washington Capitals playing in the “Winter Classic” on January 1, 2011 versus the Pittsburgh Penguins had intent to hit Crosby in the head? Absolutely. Now did he try to end his career? No, I don’t think so at all. Hockey players are smart and know how to subtly take advantage of the on-ice officials. The little things the average fan doesn’t pick-up on like tapping the back of opponent’s leg prior to him receiving the pass, or the holding of the stick or jersey in close proximity, or embellishing the infraction a tad.
But the head and the brain is the harbor for body and life functions. That should be ingrained into all players minds at the young ages. The level of respect for the game and players needs to be present. No matter how high the level of competition or heat of the battle, by no means do you ever try to initiate contact directly nor intentionally to the head of an opponent — no matter what the outcome or advantage. If you do show intent to the head then your career in hockey is over whether you are playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston University Terriers, Medicine Hat Tigers, or the Belle Tire Pee Wee Major AAAs.
A zero tolerance policy needs to be strictly enforced by USA Hockey, Hockey Canada, the NCAA, the CHL, and all the way up to the National Hockey League. I commend the NHL for creating the role of Brendan Shanahan and more so for giving it a someone who has great playing experience with the game. His diligence as VP of Hockey & Business Development, a.k.a. head disciplinarian has been good for the game. What the NHL does right usually has the trickle-down effect into the lower leagues. If other leagues see the NHL handing out stiff punishment, there’s a pretty good chances many will follow suit.
Albeit if the grassroots hockey is managed well in relation to proper coaching and officiating of the illegal checks to the head, boarding, charging, roughing, unsportsmanlike conduct, cross-checking, high-sticking, elbowing, head-butting, and instigating then the finished product years down the road will be that much better and safer. Not to mention the education to players about puck and player awareness on the ice. Players at the youth ages constantly need to be developed about techniques in approaching the puck and having their head on a swivel. Having that great hockey sense or at least on-ice awareness not only makes you a more skilled player, this vision also makes you less prone to serious injury.
Bringing in the Pros
The NHL should also think about adopting the policy of having an independent certified athletic trainer on hand each and every game to monitor concussions. The National Football League is taking the step in the right direction in doing so. Just look at the latest incident with Toronto Maple Leafs forward, Colby Armstrong. It may not prevent the initial concussion though it will certainly prevail on the athletes diagnosis, recovery, return to the game, and life.
Bottom line the players today at the older ages should be knowledgeable of the symptoms and educate themselves about concussions. Today we are getting far too smart about head injuries and this no time to be stubborn. Because players are not only putting their hockey career at risk, but also jeopardizing the most precious thing of all — their lives.
Of course the many who read these thoughts on curbing the concussion problem in hockey will laugh and object. If Commissioner Gary Bettman were to implement even one of these ideas the fans and media will have a hay day. Although can the central brain trust of the NHL look himself in the mirror every night knowing he did all he can for the good of the game. Or rather will he make sure a mockery is not made of his league and himself for things he knows must be done. Nobody said he had an easy job as resistance will be in high order from owners, general managers, players, media, and spectators. Yet how many more players will it take from our game or our living world for that matter before action is taken. The time is now.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing, getting up every morning to do something you love to do.” – Sidney Crosby
Follow Russ Bitely on Twitter for more hockey comments, analysis, and articles: @russbites