by SENShobo on 02/25/09 at 01:03 PM ET
Yesterday I posted a story regarding a Violence in Hockey Symposium, a good quick read with some very telling tales.
It’s a far cry from a strong League-wide open discussion or stance on the issue, but that day will come.
Fighting will never completely disappear from the game, but evolution is only natural, with more issues entwined herein than a Buffalo-Ottawa melee.
As the symposium “sought recommendations leading to a decrease in injuries resulting from gratuitous violence on the ice,” it’s no surprise that hits to the head top the interconnected list of issues.
The damage from cranial trauma should be unquestionable. A CNN story gives a good read into the damage, but click through just to see the two photos presented, one of healthy brain tissue resembling a gentle blue snowfall, and the other of damaged brain tissue, resembling that same snow as it appears on the ground today, plowed to sidewalks covered in dirt.
Grill any executive, and they should be able to recount tales of players losing playing time, losing their edge, losing their career, and even their life because of head injury. Yet this gets pushed to the side after every occurrence, little headway being made as of yet. How many of you remember that it was Don Sanderson who tragically died after injuries sustained when his helmetless head hit the ice? How many will remember a month or more from now, the next time they hear his name, what we should be visibly and transparently hard at work to prevent?
Behind the scenes, investigations are being done, but hidden is the last thing they should be. Uncomfortable as it is, the question of fighting’s place in hockey needs to come up.
There are countless arguments made in favour of fighting. The people sometimes referred to as ‘dinosaurs’ will say that it’s a part of the game, but at one point so was standup goaltending, clutch and grab hockey, rules against the forward pass, and hockey filled not with helmets but glorious and fiery manes. Other times you will hear that those players can contribute on the ice in other ways too, even as the same salary in nearly every case will get you a more skilled or effective player, part of that salary always granted because of the fisticuffs.
For some, it’s about the emotion in the game, but where is the emotion when two players on opposing teams are sent over the boards in a listless game, have a chat before the puck drop, and immediately proceed to ‘dance’? I’d say far more emotion was brought to the game when in last year’s Stanley Cup Finals, the Penguins’ Brooks Orpik notched four hits on a single shift in an effort to rally his team; he had to work hard to line up, make, and get back in the play for all those hits, a lot more challenging than nodding to a fellow tough before dropping the gloves (not to say that fighting is effortless, quite the contrary, but starting a fight in the NHL takes about as much effort as getting Islanders tickets).
Some will harken back to the Oilers’ dynasty and the way that guys like Semenko and McSorley protected Gretzky, allowing him the freedom to flash his unbelievable skill, but I will suggest that this is where we intersect the issue yet again, this time with rules and the way they are enforced.
I won’t even go into how ridiculous it is to support fights that erupt after a couple clean hits are laid on a team’s top player, but it’s when there are cheap hits, exceptionally late hits, and illegal but penalty-free hits that the argument gets some strength. It is time that the argument gets deflated.
After the lockout, one of the gold standards for penalties became the hook. Stick in a player’s midsection, parallel with the ice, and it’s time for a score-boosting powerplay. The referees have been trained to spot these little tugs, to spot incidental contact leading to trips, and apparently even the slightest of potential ghost high sticks (for all those watching the Sens-Canes tilt last night); is it truly possible that all those fine decisions can be made, but that seeing a player leap from his feet, use an elbow, or hit the head or a players’ numbers is hard to spot in comparison?
It’s a terrible suggestion to make or question to feel compelled to ask, but is it possible that the NHL wants players to police the game instead of referees, at least to some degree? Go to YouTube and search ‘nhl,’ and take a look at the runaway leaders when sorting by view count. Action movies sell, UFC is one of the fastest growing forms of sport entertainment, and hockey appears proud to be the only major sport that combines elite level skills interspersed with gladiatorial sparring. Check out a great Ovechkin goal, and then go see Derek Boogaard make Todd Fedoruk’s face require a metal plate, thanks to his fists.
Players have been trained to pester with their sticks right up to the dividing line between penalties and being in the clear, the more stringent calls no doubt affecting this. Players still hit in the OHL, where hits to the head are dealt with automatically, is it such a stretch to think that outright banning them instead of merely having Colin Campbell react to them would curtail the physical nature of the game? Colin Campbell can only react after the fact; in the middle of the game, if the referees aren’t defending a player as his safety should be defended, fighting often appears as the only option left.
Think for a minute, and remember that there are summer camps for children to learn how to toss it up on the ice. There are none tailored to train them how to keep their helmets on, how to avoid hits to the head and hits from behind, reacting to their target’s changes with the same focus that they react to the puck’s path, and how to use good play rather than good theatrics to try and change the course of a game.
Some day in the future, I see a League that has no rosters with fighting specialists, no other rosters with the same, if only to be prepared. A League where at worst, a terrible abuse on the ice might spill over into an altercation, but not an organized do-see-do between players seeing only a couple minutes’ ice time or a quint of players sent over the boards to mix it up after the next puck drops. I see a League that stops getting hockey mixed up with scripted WWE in the middle of the game.
I see a League just as exciting to watch, minus much eye-rolling on the part of the fans and hand-wringing on the part of parents. I see a better League slowly taking shape each day.
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