Head Shots Knocking the Fun Out of the Game

By Jason Menard

It’s getting harder and harder to be a fan of the NHL these days. And with the league’s commissioner adding similar hubris to his Napoleonic resemblance, it’s hard to see how the league is going to change for the better of its own volition before it’s compelled to by sending one of its players to the morgue.

I never thought I’d be cheering an airline, but I have to applaud Air Canada for its stand against the league’s continuing to turn if not a blind eye, certainly an exceptionally myopic on, on the issue of head injuries. Following the league’s inaction in the aftermath of the ax Pacioretty hit, Air Canada’s director of marketing/communication Denis Vandal, sent a letter to the league demanding immediate and serious actions on this issue.

The hammer? Vandal’s letter strongly suggested that the airline could pack up its sponsorship dollars. And while I would never want a league kowtowing to corporate interests, in this case Air Canada’s opinion clearly mirrors that of a growing number of fans (unlike their opinion on luggage fees – but that’s another column).

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s response was not only insulting to such a valued sponsor (don’t forget that the airline also has a transportation contract with 11 of the league’s teams), but it showed how far out of touch he is with the fans who support his game. The league’s response, “… if they decide that they need to do other things
with their sponsorship dollars, that’s their prerogative.”

The league’s response was prefaced by “Air Canada is a great brand, as is the National Hockey League…” While the first half’s a sound statement, the second part of it is rapidly being called into question.

While watching TSN’s Sportsdesk and Rogers Sportsnet’s highlight shows, it seemed like every game featured some sort of hits to the head. The league’s still without its marquee star in Sidney Crosby due to a head injury; Pacioretty’s lucky he wasn’t paralyzed and right now the focus should be on seeing him get healthy and, hopefully, get back on the ice; and concussion has replaced upper body injury as the word du jour on injured lists.

You only needed to watch the crowd shots after the Pacioretty hit. Mouths agape, some fans near tears, and a noticeable hush over the 21,000-plus fans in the normally raucous Molson/Bell/New Forum Centre. Montrealers are a passionate bunch who live and breathe hockey. There’s a reason why hockey’s considered a religion in la belle
province – but no one wants to see a player become a martyr to the cause of common sense.

This is not a new problem, but it appears to be getting worse. The league has lost notable players like Pat LaFontaine, the Lindros brothers, and countless others to the fog of long-term head injuries. Reports indicate that Bob Probert suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. And while the latter may have been inflicted as a
result of his pugnacious behaviour, the fact of the matter is players are bigger, stronger, faster, and essentially wearing suits of armour.

The popular idea is that players don’t respect each other as much as they did in the old days. While that may be true, I think that players don’t have that same level of fear any longer. It’s not Dave Semenko-enduced fear of retribution, but rather equipment has
increased in quality so greatly that players have no fear of getting hurt. When I played as a youth, my equipment was soft padding, with maybe a little plastic shell. Today’s equipment? Rock hard, not very flexible, and capable of inflicting as much damage as it protects.

Equipment is one thing, awareness is another. Who knows how many players back in the earlier days of the NHL suffered from concussions? How many players got their bell rung, had smelling salts passed under their nose, and went over the boards for their next shift?

The difference is we know better – well, at least the fans, the sponsors, and the players do. Bettman and his enablers seemingly prefer to ostrich-ize themselves by sticking their collective heads in the sand. However, before they limited themselves to platitudes, empty promises, and half measures to combat a serious issue. Now he’s added arrogance to the mix and risks ostracizing his fan base.

The solutions are actually fairly simple: increase penalties for any and all head shots; roll back the equipment so that it’s doing what it’s supposed to do – protect, not punish; hit offenders hard in their wallets for every infraction; and kick those who repeatedly target heads out of the league. Playing in the NHL is not a right – a select
few have the ability to do so, but if you waste that opportunity by disrespecting your opponents, then you should lose that privilege.

From a human point of view, we don’t want these kids dying for our amusement – this is hockey, not a gladiator show. From a business perspective, which seems to be the only way to get through to the NHL’s leadership, having your marquee assets sidelined indefinitely is not putting your best product on the ice.

And in the end, Bettman needs to remember that it’s not the sponsors and advertisers who can take their money elsewhere – the fans can too. Obviously doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do isn’t motivation enough. However, I have a feeling that if this hubris translates into lost revenue, doing the right thing will become far
more appealing.

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