‘I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out!’ That is the old joke in regards to the frequent fighting that used to define the NHL. Years have gone by and the fighting remains, albeit with fewer bench clearing, epic beat downs the sport witnessed in the early years through the 1980s. After the brain damage researchers discovered in Bob Probert some are advocating for moving away from the glove dropping altogether. But, with the popularity of fighting in the NHL (if it wasn’t popular, would we have hockeyfights.com?) is that the right move? And the ultimate question, is fighting the ACTUAL problem?
To answer the ultimate question with a question (bad manners, I know, but bear with me), let me highlight the real reason for this commentary: what should the NHL do about the escalating concussion problem? If you’re not a dyed in the wool hockey fan and need a bit of convincing that this is indeed a problem, just look at Sidney Crosby’s season stat line from January until the end of the year. He hasn’t played due to a concussion. The NHL’s top marketable star, Sid the Kid, has not laced up the skates since January. Let that sink in for a minute. Think NBA with no Lebron.
But Crosby isn’t the best example to use to eliminate violent hits, as he was injured on a clean play. The real problems lies in the blindside hits, like the one that most likely has ended Marc Savard’s career* or the most recent and most visible dirty hit, the Aaron Rome knockout of Nathan Horton in game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals. To emphasize my point a little better, let me toss in the Todd Bertuzzi assault on Steve Moore from several years back to complete the outrage trifecta. You’ll understand why I included that play in a moment.
Hockey purists (i.e. guys who have been watching the sport for 30 years or longer) will point to the fact that the “old timers” never wore helmets and you never saw this many injuries (except when Wayne Maki and Ted Green decided to try to brain each other in a preseason game), and that today’s NHL players just aren’t tough enough. Well, that’s a great argument <sarcasm>. Just ask Steven Stamkos or Martin St. Louis if they don’t feel “tough enough”. The NHL was a wild league back “in the day” (the above incident being a perfect example). They used to say Gordie Howe sharpened his elbows before games. He would go into a corner, beat the crap out of a defenseman to gain the puck, and then score. He even has a “stat” named for him: a Gordie Howe hat trick – a goal, assist and fight in the same game. Ironic that Howe actually only achieved that stat twice in his seemingly endless career.
But those hockey purists need to have a few items pointed out to them. 1. The NHL made helmets mandatory for players in 1979… for a reason! Players were getting bigger and faster and impacts were becoming more violent. To preserve the brain matter of the players, helmets were required. That leads to 2. Players are bigger and faster than they were in 1979. As the NHL became more global, it advanced from the best players in the U.S. and Canada to the best players on the planet. That meant players had to become bigger, stronger, faster… better, just to make it in the league. So, let me wrap that up with 3. The helmets in the NHL in 2011 are made from the same materials as 1979. So, basically, the equipment has not advanced with the speed of the players. Meanwhile, the sport of football has invested millions of dollars to devise helmets that lessen the impact on players’ skulls. Hockey helmets have never advanced past foam rubber with a hard plastic shell. By the way, the only pieces of equipment that are different today than back in 1979 are the goalie masks and chest/arm protectors (which are now made of Kevlar and other types of materials).
So, what’s the solution? Is it better helmets, softer shoulder pads, making the NHL a “no check” league, or something else? To prevent an injury on a clean hit like Crosby suffered, then ‘yes’, better technology on head protection is needed. I’m not advocating wearing football helmets on the ice, but hockey helmet manufacturers need to make some improvements from the 1970s technology they are still using.
The solution the NHL opted for at this point is “something else” with the implementation of Rule 48. Rule 48.6: 48.6 Fines and Suspensions – Any player who incurs a total of two (2) game misconducts under this rule, in either regular League or playoff games, shall be suspended automatically for the next game his team plays. For each subsequent game misconduct penalty the automatic suspension shall be increased by one game. If deemed appropriate, supplementary discipline can be applied by the Commissioner at his discretion (refer to Rule 28).
The last line, to this point, has been a joke. The closest thing to “supplementary discipline” the league has issued has been suspending Matt Cooke for the remainder of the regular season and first round of the playoffs after an incident on March 21, 2011 when elbowed NY Ranger Ryan McDonagh in the jaw. Add to that banishing Aaron Rome for the remainder of the Stanley Cup Finals. But, is that really a deterrent to hitting people illegally? Missing 17 games or 4 games? Apparently not, since Matt Cooke has been suspended four times since 2008 and Aaron Rome had been handed several game misconducts for illegal hits in the past before his incident with Nathan Horton.
I once had a boss that hung a sign in his office that read: “Don’t come to me with your problem unless you have the solution to that problem.” So, I’ve outlined a problem and I feel I have a solution. However, my solution will never get past the NHLPA, even though it’s for the protection of its membership. The solution: if you injure a player on an illegal hit, you are suspended for the amount of games that player misses. End a guy’s season… yours is over. End a guy’s career… yours is over. THAT’S why I mentioned the Bertuzzi hit. Under my rules, Todd Bertuzzi would have never put on an NHL uniform again. How will this curtail the illegal hits to the head? Simple: players will be thinking about THEIR career any time they line up a guy with their elbow. It will take a lot of malice out of some of the hits I’ve seen in the NHL in recent years.
Keith Primeau, Eric Lindros, and Marc Savard are three players I can think of, off the top of my head, whose seasons or even careers were cut short by concussions. Will Sidney Crosby or Nathan Horton ever return from their head injuries? No sport wants to lose some of its biggest stars to injuries that can and should be prevented. It’s part of the reason the NFL protects quarterbacks so well… although you’ll find a few naysayers complaining that it’s gone too far in some aspects.
So, getting back to fighting in the NHL. Is it a problem? In my eyes, it’s actually a solution. For years, if you made a cheap or bad hit on a player, a teammate would step up and offer payback to the offender, man to man, gloves off. Take fighting out of the equation, and just you may see a lot more of the cheap hits that are causing the head injuries that are plaguing the league right now. Fighting has and always will serve a purpose in the NHL. Blind side hits to a players head has never nor will ever serve any kind of useful purpose.
Ultimately, the NHL has to figure out if violence is the real reason fans tune in to watch the games. If it’s curtailed or even removed, will you lose the core fan base? I don’t think so. I feel true fans watch hockey FOR hockey, like I do. To me, hockey is a game that’s a balance of speed, skill, and some violence. But I do feel that some of the unnecessary violence can be successfully eliminated without wussifying the game.
*- before you say “but Savard came back after the Cooke hit only to suffer another concussion”, keep in mind he was never fully recovered from the first concussion.