NHL Must Smarten Up on Hits to Head

By Jason Menard

If losing the league’s top player for an extended period of time due to a couple of hits to the head knocking him loopy won’t change the game, will anything knock some sense into the powers that be?

The coolest NHL all-star game in years is fast approaching. We’ve all heard about (and discussed) the intriguing twist of players picking their own sides for this overblown game of shinny. Unfortunately, the league’s top player – and likely one of the team captains – Sidney Crosby probably won’t be on hand to be the centrepiece of this showcase event.

Why? A concussion. Crosby, who suffered a concussion courtesy of hits from the Washington Capitals’ David Steckel and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Victor Hedman, has missed a handful of games already for the Penguins. Without a marked improvement in his symptoms in record time, he likely won’t be clear to participate in the Jan. 31, 2011 contest.

That won’t just be the fans’ loss – the game as a whole will suffer. All-star games, at the best of times, are insufferable. This year’s twist has breathed some life into the stale concept and it may even draw some of those coveted American eyeballs to the contest.

Unfortunately, thanks to a concussion, those eyeballs will likely miss seeing one of the most dynamic, engaging, and personable hockey superstars since a certain number 99 launched the expansion of hockey into the southern states.

Crosby has already spoken out about the hits that shelved him – and he’s obviously frustrated by the lack of action the NHL has taken. Of course, he’s also the good corporate soldier and won’t come out too harshly.

Sid might not want to, but the league, the players’ representatives, and we, the fans, should. Common sense is far too uncommon in competitive hockey circles and appealing to their humanitarian instincts won’t work. But let’s break this down into simple business.

As a corporation, you want to protect your best assets. When your elite assets are unavailable, your business gets devalued, your customers are less satisfied, and your product is inferior. Those customers then find other avenues in which to invest. And you lose.

Simple, right? But the NHL isn’t run as a business – at least not entirely. No, it’s populated with old-timers’ who hearken back to the good ol’ days, when scores were settled on the ice, fisticuffs reigned supreme, and a good whack to the boards was a badge of honour.

There are fans who have bought into this mentality, as well. Growing up on Don Cherry’s Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em, they’re the same ones that stand up and cheer for fights, cascade insults on injured players thrashing about on the ice, and generally provide the punch line to the old joke, “I went to a fight last night and a hockey game broke out.”

It’s time to take strong action and protect the players. Immediate suspensions for blatant or intentional hits to the head with a stick or shoulder and stricter penalties for accidental hits to the head.

The old-schooler’s will balk at this idea. There are those who remain beholden to some notion that sporting life should return to the 50’s – where men were men, and the game was played by tough, ornery types.

It’s also all wrong.

Today’s game is played by bigger, faster, better-conditioned athletes wearing full-scale, high-tech body armour. The protective equipment back then was little more than leather with a couple of pieces of plastic – not the literal body armour today’s players wear.

When I was younger, you played with a bit of fear. You knew that if you got hit – by a puck or a player – it was going to hurt. The padding would cushion the blow, but you’d still feel it. So that made you more aware and more respectful of your surroundings. Today’s players combine a fearlessness caused by impenetrable equipment, with bigger bodies, greater speed, and faster-flying pucks thanks to space-age hockey sticks.

Holding today’s style of game to the same standards of what we saw in the 50’s and 70’s is ludicrous. Just as no one would expect a goalie to come out bare-faced any more (and suiting up a rover would result in a permanent too-many-men penalty), why do we expect today’s players to follow yesterday’s rules?

The game is better today. Arguably the best talent from all around the world gathers in the NHL. And I don’t know about you, but when I think of that talent on the ice, I’d rather see it upright on skates, dazzling me with their talent, physicality, and speed, than lying prone, with a glazed look, thanks to a hit to the head.

Body checking will always have a place, but it needs to be taught properly. The head is off limits, equipment must be adjusted or tempered to reduce its impact, and all players have to be protected so that each team can ice its best lineup as often as possible.

You can’t eliminate accidents; people will still get injured. But you can enforce strict measures to ensure that the best players get to play. You would think the NHL and its players would want that, as it offers the greatest potential for financial growth.

If they don’t – and they want to keep up this false bravado – then they’re all just brain dead. And it’s only a matter of time until a player unfortunately turns that metaphor into a reality.

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