NHL Heading in the Wrong Direction

By Jason Menard

Injuries are a part of any sport and at times they can be catastrophic. But the NHL must take steps immediately to minimize any and all possible risks, because the future of their product depends on it.

We’ve all, sadly, been privy to vicious acts that have resulted in severe head injuries. From Todd Bertuzzi’s mauling of Steve Moore, to Marty McSorely’s lumberjack impersonation on Donald Brashear’s head, and Alexander Perezhogin’s similar two-hander to the head of Garrett Stafford in the AHL, we’ve seen extreme examples of head injuries caused by an outside force.

Hell, this is nothing new. Ace Bailey’s career was cut short due to a severe head injury inflicted by Eddie Shore back in 1933. But what is new is how innocuous acts are now having devastating effects on players throughout the league.

Just ask the Montreal Canadiens’ Aaron Downey, who was knocked for roller coaster’s worth of loops by a check by Robin Regehr. A clean check. No elbow, no leaving the feet, just a good solid hit against the boards.

We’re seeing this more and more, and ironically it’s the improvements in the game that has created this detrimental effect. Simply put, the game’s a heck of a lot faster than it used to be as players are able to move faster, without being impeded or slowed by hooks, holds, and interference. Players are bigger, stronger, and wearing high-tech suits of armour on the ice. Combine all these factors and it’s amazing that we’re not seeing even more injuries.

The NHL can’t turn a blind eye on this. Sad to say, Aaron Downey’s not going to get it done. As nice of a guy he is and as much as his teammates love him, he’s a plugger bordering on goon status. But hopefully we won’t need to see an established star – or, perish the thought, the future of the league like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, go down for the count before people get up in arms.

Hopefully someone’s career – or worse, their life — doesn’t have to end violently before the league steps in for the good of everyone.

Yet it’s not a promising thought. After all, this is a league that refuses to force its players to don eye protection, when all the benefits far outweigh any perceived negative impact. This is a league that allows players to carry around metal weapons with no give – unlike the old wooden sticks that would snap like a twig. This is a league that caters far too much to the guys with the sloped frontal lobes who think Rock ’em, Sock ’em hockey is the only way to prove one’s manhood.

It won’t work until the suits in the front office start treating the game like a business. Despite all the marketing and promotion efforts they’ve undertaken, they still don’t seem to get that the players are the currency upon which their businesses are traded. If common sense doesn’t work, then maybe corporate economics will.

The players are employees. If the league decides that the dress code includes better, more protective headgear that’s actually strapped on securely, complete with facial protection, that’s their right. If they mandate mouthguards, then no amount of bitching from the boys in the union should matter.

Nor should the union brothers protest too much. Their best-before dates expire rapidly, so anything that can be done to maximize their earning potential should be welcomed with open arms. Unfortunately, they’re too busy grabbing themselves and proving their manhood to embrace the concept of personal safety.

We don’t have to legislate body checking out of the game. What we have to do is legislate better, mandatory protective gear into the game. Teams have to look at their players as investments and do everything they can do to ensure maximum return on that investment.

Just as a construction site mandates proper headgear, so too should the NHL embrace tougher restrictions on what its employees wear. Better helmets, mouthguards, and other protective gear should not just be the norm, they should be legislated into existence.

But instead the league focusses on new designs for its jerseys, so it’s players can look better. Let’s just hope in the future we don’t have to admire how well a player’s looking as he’s thrashing on the ice because we prized style over substance.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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