by Joe Tasca on 10/03/11 at 12:02 PM ET
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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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.