By Jason Menard
I have a confession to make – I like the film Bloodsport. I know it’s cheesy, campy, and poorly acted, but it also takes me back to a time when I was 15 and still heavily involved in karate. I thoroughly enjoyed the file despite its violence, gore, and cracking bones, because I was strongly aware of the fact that it was fantasy.
But there appears to be another sequel on the market – the NHL – and while Jean Claude Van Damme could head back to his trailer after the director said cut, wipe off the stage blood, and get on with his life, the actors in this modern production have no such luxury.
And like Bloodsport’s three direct-to-video sequels, I’m finding it extremely difficult to find any motivation to continue watching.
Without a doubt, I love hockey. At its best, the ice is a showcase for the world’s finest to entertain with superlative displays of talent, speed, physicality, and team play. At its finest, it’s the perfect balance between beauty and brawn – grace, precision, and skill combined with elements of physical play, intimidation, and dynamic collisions. At its best, the game can thrill you equally with a scintillating deke off a breakaway and a well-timed, momentum-changing mid-ice hip check.
Unfortunately, the league is not currently at its best. The physicality of the game is nullifying some of the league’s finest talent as a result of concussions.
I have no doubt that concussions have always been a part of hockey – it’s just that now we’re far more aware of what they are. One of hockey’s most iconic photos was taken in 1952 by Roger St-Jean and depicts a battered Maurice Richard, his jersey soaked in blood, a bandage wrapped about his head, shaking hands with Sugar Jim Henry – himself sporting two black eyes. It’s a perfect representation of both the unyielding toughness and premium sportsmanship that hockey players are known for. It’s also a perfect representation for all that’s wrong with the NHL.
There’s always been a code amongst hockey players. It’s a code of toughness leading to honour: playing through pain, not letting your teammates down, and returning to the ice as soon as humanly (or, in some cases, inhumanly) possible. From Eddie Shore playing the day after having his nearly severed ear reattached (without anesthetic, so says the legend) to Bobby Baun playing the final two games of the 1964 Stanley Cup final on a broken ankle, to Clint Malarchuk returning to the ice four days after nearly bleeding to death on the ice from a skate-severed carotid artery (which required 300 stitches to close), the NHL’s history is filled with these awe-inspiring stories.
But that code is failing today’s players. No matter how tough you are, the body seemingly cannot keep up with the advances in technology, training, and evolution. The equipment today is like armour and far more unyielding than what was worn even 20 years ago. While increasing the wearer’s protection, this equipment has the unintended result of serving as a weapon.
Players are bigger, stronger, and faster than ever – yet the size of the rinks remain the same. Players are dedicated to nutrition and exercise regimens today in a way that ensures their bodies are performing at peak capacity. Before players would use the off-season to work a second job (to make ends meet) and relax. Training camp was about playing your way into shape. Today NHL players are finely tuned machines, in peak condition year-round, with an army of nutritionists, trainers, and athletic performance experts working around the clock.
And we’re also growing far more aware – frighteningly so, in fact – of both the short and long-term impact of these collisions. Before, getting your bell rung was quaint. Whip out the smelling salts, head back on the ice, and maybe – like Richard who scored the Cup-winning goal semi-conscious – you have a legacy-establishing story to share.
Sadly, for many players those legacies are fast becoming stories of opportunities lost. Just yesterday, Chris Pronger likely saw his career come to an end due to concussions. A player like Marc Savard may have to hang up the skates permanently as well. On the positive side (and not to diminish the impact of these concussions) both of these players have already enjoyed long and successful careers to date.
But there’s a frightening new trend developing – and the NHL must do something immediately. The next generation of stars – the very players expected to carry the league into the future – is being snuffed out. Sidney Crosby is back on the shelf again after a recurrence of the concussion symptoms that caused him to miss half of last year and much of this season. Talented youth like Marc Staal, Brayden Schenn, Milan Michalek, Claude Giroux, Mike Richards, and Jeff Skinner are all out with concussions. And that’s only part of the list. You could form a pretty competitive all-star team with the players currently out due to head injuries.
As a fan, it’s hard to watch. Years ago, a bone-crunching hit that left a player in a crumpled heap on the ice would elicit oohs and ahhs. It would be celebrated and cheered – and I was right there in the appreciation of these hits. Now I find myself cringing a bit, wondering if this is the hit that ends someone’s career – or worse, life.
I don’t know what the solution is, but everything must be on the table – and the solution must be found now. Whether it’s stricter regulations on equipment, changes to helmets or mouth guards, wider ice surfaces, a restrictive neck collar, or even stricter penalties for all hits to the head, something must be done.
It won’t solve all the problems. Accidents will still happen. Little can be done to prevent the collisions that precipitated Michalek’s, Giroux’s, and even Crosby’s latest concussion.
But something must be done. I love the sport of hockey, but I don’t love it enough to be willing to watch someone die for my entertainment. Hockey must retain its physicality and speed, but something must be done to prevent its continued descent into the bloodsport category. Fans want the league’s marquee talent to be fully on display on the ice, not – like Bloodsport 2, 3, and 4 – permanently on the shelf.
In real life, sports shouldn’t be about life and death. My fear is that this concussion epidemic will eventually make that a reality. So if something doesn’t change soon then eventually many fans, including myself, will show as much interest in the NHL as we do in Van Damme’s current career.