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Tasca's Take

Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind

October is finally here, and with it comes the start of another NHL season.  And while I’m looking forward to watching the game I love on a nightly basis, I have this overwhelming feeling of trepidation as we close in on opening night.

A few months ago, I was talking with Wayne Norman, a broadcast colleague of mine who’s not particularly fond of hockey.  For one, he can’t understand the rules of the game.  But second, he told me he can’t stand how the players slam each other into the boards, engage in physical contact, and sometimes drop the gloves.  He thinks it’s silly. 

I basically told him that the main draw of the game, from my perspective, is the physicality.  Yeah, we all appreciate a tic-tac-toe goal, a nice give-and-go, a slick deflection, or a word-class deke in close quarters.  But the primary reason we watch hockey is because the game perfectly combines that incredible skill with a modicum of violence.  If you take that violence out of the game, you don’t have hockey as we know it.  Imagine pro football without tackling.  Would you watch it?  No friggin’ way. 

I don’t think I’ve ever been more worried about the integrity of the game as I am right now.  The ongoing concussion problem is impossible to ignore, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the game, as we now know it, is going to change dramatically.

As we all know, football is going through similar problems when it comes to concussions.  The NFL, like pro hockey, is trying to determine what, if anything, can be done to combat the concussion epidemic.  Personally, I think it’s a useless endeavor.  These two sports feature very large, well-conditioned athletes performing at remarkably fast speeds.  Because these guys are bigger than ever before, the contact has become more violent, leading to a slew of scrambled brains.  What, besides eliminating body-checking and open-field tackling, can these sports do to eliminate concussions?

Only the players can fix the problem.  I talked to Springfield Falcons general manager Bruce Landon earlier this year and asked him what he thought about the concussion situation, and he said he thinks the players simply have no respect for each other.  Honestly, I didn’t buy that for a second.  I thought these guys, who are inevitably all part of the same union, were fully cognizant of the fact that they’re not only hockey players trying to make a living, but fathers and husbands who have lives outside of pro hockey.  The Chara hit on Pacioretty, the Rome hit on Horton, and several others have made me reconsider that position. 

The problem is, if the players aren’t willing to respect each other, the league will have to take action to protect the players from themselves.  The trump card in all this came to the surface in the aftermath of the Pacioretty hit, where you had Air Canada, the largest Canadian airline and a long-time sponsor of the NHL, threatening to pull its advertising if the league doesn’t take measures to eliminate head shots.  I don’t think any of us are naive enough to think the league is going to ignore the corporate pressure that is bound to emerge as more of these incidents occur over time.  Not when there’s money at stake.

The corporations that own pro hockey teams are very timid.  For years, they’ve accepted the idea that massive body checks and fighting are simply “part of the game” as we all like to say.  But what gets my attention these days is that more and more people within the game, especially player agents and owners, are starting to use the scare tactics that people outside hockey circles have been using for quite some time They’re talking about how someone’s gonna get killed on the ice if something isn’t done to change the culture of the game.  And of course, the league’s best player (Crosby) is leading the charge, having suffered a devastating concussion ten months ago.  The drum is banging louder and louder with each passing day, and something’s got to give. 

Questionable hits are nothing new.  But the recent data on the long-lasting impact of concussions, while not a particularly shocking revelation, is causing many people in hockey circles to take pause.  Concussions have become somewhat of an epidemic in the NHL, forcing the powers that be to re-examine whether the players can be counted on to “police themselves.”  If they determine the players are unable to do so (which will likely be the case), then changes are going to be made.  What kind of changes?  It’s hard to say, but one thing I know for sure is that the days of fighting are numbered.  I honestly believe that part of the game will be abolished in no more than ten years.  Enjoy it now, folks.

I went to an minor-league game in Providence six months ago.  One player was taken off the ice on a stretcher after being checked from behind into the boards.  Another player suffered a concussion after he was drilled on an open-ice hit.  Another player had his legs buckle after a left hand to the chin.  This is all in one game.  Sadly, these are all the occupational hazards of professional hockey.  Personally, I don’t think there’s a damn thing that can be done about it without changing the way the game is played.  We all want our cake and to be able to eat it, too.  We want guys to play on the edge, engage physically, and drag that line between fair and chippy play.  But it seems to me that the NHL is becoming impatient with that model as it currently exists.

That doesn’t bode well for us.

Hockey is a game where split second decisions are made, many of them ill-advised.  If we’re going to bitch and moan every time a player goes down with a serious head injury, we are putting the integrity of the game at risk.  If we don’t want players to get hurt, and aren’t prepared to watch a man’s eyes glaze over after getting flattened at the blueline, the only reasonable recourse is to ban body checking altogether.  Doing so would pacify Wayne Norman and those of his ilk, but it sure would piss me off.

Touch football, anyone?

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Comments

Hank1974's avatar

Watch a game from the 70’s and you’ll note that there was barely any bodychecking. Certainly very little open-ice hitting. And yet, people talk about how ‘physical’ that era is.

If you’re a rational, intelligent, human being, you can’t put your head in the sand and say “It is what it is”.

I know I won’t help provide the NHL with money if it continues to allow players to handicap each other.

The game can still be as physical, certainly far more physical than it was in the 70’s, while eliminating hits to the head, or fighting.

Many of the suspendable hits in this preseason could have still be executed, and cleanly, if the hitter had simply dropped their shoulder 4” lower.

Like Jerome Iginla said, this game is fast, but not that fast. They all know how to control their bodies and have the ability to change course in a split-second.

So if there’s anything I’m not buying into, is the idea that these players are complete victims to their environment and there’s nothing they can do to prevent dangerous hits.

I enjoy the physical nature of the sport, but give me a 15’ top-shelf goal, or a tic-tac-toe play any-day over someone getting crunched into the glass or caught with their head down at centre ice.
And hearing about someone sitting in a dark room for 10 months doesn’t provide me any entertainment value either.

The game will still be highly entertaining minus all the cheap-shots and head-hunting.
I enjoyed the NHL immensely throughout the 80’s and you never saw any of the junk that occurs in today’s NHL.

Posted by Hank1974 on 10/03/11 at 01:04 PM ET

Avatar

I strongly disagree with your position. There are two kinds of hits in hockey: hits that are integral to puck play and hits that are simply meant to intimidate. The latter, which includes every hit that happens after the player has shot the puck, passed the puck, or otherwise released it, can be taken out of the game without any impact on the quality of the game or speed with which the game is played. In fact, taking that crap out might actually result in better hitting and force a lot of marginal players to retire because they cannot manage the positional play.

Hitting and the culture of hitting has changed noticeably since the 70s. There has always been bad hits and head hunters but the increased focus on hitting everything that moves, even after the puck is released, in order to wear down and intimidate the other team is where control was lost. And it did not used to be in the game but crept in over the years. Ergo, it can be taken out.

Posted by Shaun from Toronto on 10/03/11 at 01:05 PM ET

Hank1974's avatar

Couldn’t agree more Shaun.
Great points.

Posted by Hank1974 on 10/03/11 at 01:13 PM ET

OlderThanChelios's avatar

...I talked to Springfield Falcons general manager Bruce Landon earlier this year and asked him what he thought about the concussion situation, and he said he thinks the players simply have no respect for each other.

If we each had a dollar for every time Mickey Redmond has said that during Wings’ broadcasts, we could afford season tickets for any team in the league. As Hank noted, back in Mickey’s day, the play was “physical” but guys didn’t roam around the ice just looking to hit someone.

So what’s so different now? I think part of it is the money involved. Even the biggest, dumbest goon can make half a million dollars a year if he’s in the NHL. That’s a lot of incentive to “make a name” for yourself in order to get a contract. I’m almost surprised some contacts don’t have “bonus” clauses for taking out opposing star players.

Eliminating the “finishing your check” mentality that Shaun talks about would be a start (although most coaches, including Mike Babcock) probably wouldn’t like it. That aspect has crept into the game and coaches would have to both revamp their strategies and their rosters if it’s taken out.

In the end, I think it may come down to GMs recognizing that employing goons and head-hunters may be good for them, but it’s not so good when someone else’s goon takes one of your stars out. Or maybe, just maybe, players will finally start respecting other players as human beings.

One “test” of that will come the first time someone has Crosby lined up for a hit along the boards. If they “crush” him (and his head), just because they can, we’ll know we’re not there yet. But if they deliver a solid hit, a hockey hit, it may be an indication that we’re headed in the right direction.

Posted by OlderThanChelios from Grand Rapids, MI on 10/03/11 at 01:51 PM ET

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I am so tired of the “we dont understand the rules” bs, Its just lame excuses from media in the us that push down hockey. Hockey was seen plenty in the early 90s , exposed on sitcoms etc when hockey was hoter. After the lockout ,media started belittling hockey . Baseball and basketball people lobby? WHO knows. But complaining about difficult rules and hockey being boring is lame. I mean baseball is understood, and watched as entertainment . A sport many europeans think is less entertaining than watching paint dry, and the game length seems retard@d, they all wear silly clothes too. When hockey gains momentum again and crosby gains gretzky status or nyr goes to thefinals media will love hockey again and people will ” understand the rules” again.

Posted by Joakim from Sweden on 10/03/11 at 06:17 PM ET

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About Tasca's Take

Tasca's Take is written by Joe Tasca. Born and raised in Westerly, Rhode Island, Joe works as a broadcaster for seven radio stations in southern New England. Whether that's a testament to his on-air ability or because he has a desparate need for money is debatable.

Joe spends his summers playing golf, enjoying the beauty of Misquamicut Beach, and wining and dining girls who are easily awed by the mere presence of a radio personality. During the winter months, he can usually be found taking in a hockey game somewhere in North America. In the spring, he spends much of his time in botanical gardens tiptoeing through the tulips, while autumn is a time to frolic with his golden retrievers through piles of his neighbors’ leaves.