NHLers Thinking with the Wrong Head

By Jason Menard

Most of the time, we guys are criticized for thinking too much WITH the little head – but, when it comes to NHL players, they’re obviously more concerned with thinking ABOUT their little head when it comes to safety.

Is there any reason why players would question your sanity if you suggested playing the game without a jock, but don’t see the folly in playing the game without adequate facial protection?

Manhood is a big part of professional sports. It’s the Neanderthalistic backdrop to competition. It’s what prevents most sports from truly being appreciated for their speed, grace, skill, and – yes, even – beauty. The most exciting or dramatic touchdown, dunk, or goal can be marred by gratuitous displays of gloating, preening, and self-importance. It’s gotten to the point where routine plays – the kind you’re expected to make as a high-school athlete – are celebrated with overt (and choreographed) attention-grabbing antics.

Thus, our sporting fields often reek with the remnants of these macho pissing contents. And, like pre-pubescent boys trying to assert their emerging maturity, common sense is often left behind in an attempt to not appear weaker than your competitor.

Which brings us back to the NHL and its players continued stubborn refusal to wear facial protection. Admittedly, it was like pulling teeth to get them to wear helmets just over two decades ago, with some resisting and clinging to grandfather clauses, until the bitter – and better – end.

Yet, the league and its players association make no effort to mandate its players when it comes to facial protection. Adhering to some ancient freedom of choice myth perpetuated by years of negligence, the players are asserting that it’s their divine right to play the fastest game in the world without complete protection.

Normally, I’m all for letting Darwin have his way with these people and letting the laws of natural selection cull those who aren’t smart enough to protect themselves from our general population. But, at the professional level, these players are not just individuals – they’re investments. Team owners literally spend millions on these players and build their product based upon the foundation that these players will be in the lineup. From marketing campaigns to anticipation of playoff revenue, forecasts are made with the idea that your stars are going to be in uniform. And that doesn’t even factor in the countless thousands of dollars that are spent on insurance policies.

The counter argument is that injuries happen and only fate will decide who pops an ACL and who suffers a fractured orbital bone – or worse – the loss of an eye. But the difference is that the former injury is truly a matter of fate, while the latter examples are more or less completely preventable.

Today’s players have come through a minor league system that mandates facial protection. From full cages at the younger and university levels, to the face shields present in junior hockey, today’s athlete spends the majority of his developmental years playing the game with something in front of his eyes. Yet, upon the ascension to the pro ranks, we’re supposed to believe that suddenly one’s vision becomes impaired by the very same thin sheet of plastic which allowed this player to rise through the ranks to become one of only a handful of people in this world with the skill and talent to play professional hockey?

As well, in this new fan-friendly hockey environment, the league and its players need to understand that it’s its principal stakeholders, the fans, who suffer the most when a valued member of their team goes down from an entirely preventable injury. The fans are the ones who purchase the tickets, buy the licensed merchandise, and support the manufacturers who use the players as pitchmen.

Finally, the players themselves need to understand that wearing a face shield is an investment in themselves. With a salary cap system, revenues tied to league earnings, and a precariously short career, to not do everything in your ability to maximize your earning potential and revenue-producing years is simply folly.

It’s time for hockey players to join the rest of us on these higher rungs of the evolutionary ladder. If they can stop dragging their knuckles long enough to grab a stick, then they’re at the developmental point where they can affix a shield to their helmet. Let’s start putting a premium on intelligence when it comes to defining manhood. Let’s take another look at what it means to be tough.

Firefighters enter blazing buildings covered head to toe in protective equipment. Does that make them any less a man (or woman in this case)? Or do we appreciate their bravery regardless of a plastic shield in front of their face? Why should the threshold for manhood be different on ice? A generation ago, people were resisting strapping on a seatbelt for many of the same reasons: we’ve never worn one before; they’re an uncomfortable encumbrance; no one’s going to tell me what to do. But look at where we’ve come since then.

The players demand the freedom of choice, so here’s a solution. Facial protection won’t be mandatory – the players can still roam the ice with their bare faces whipping in the wind, asserting their individuality and masculinity. However, if they elect not to wear a face shield, they’re prohibited from wearing a jock. Put on a mask and the cup comes back.

Simple solution. And we’ll see which head they’re truly thinking with – and which one will lead the way.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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