Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Jeff Skinner, Mike Richards, Kris Letang, James van Riemsdyk, Milan Michalek, Chris Pronger, and Marc Staal.
What do these players have in common? Part of the All Star team? No, that’s the list of headliners who have either suffered or are currently nursing concussions. Crosby’s season is in jeopardy. Chris Pronger’s career is in jeopardy. And it seems as though every week, we add another one or two players to the list.
Concussions have always been part of the game, an unfortunate part, but one nonetheless. Its nasty wrath has cut short the careers of the likes of Eric Lindros, Mike Richter, Keith Primeau, Pat Lafontaine, and Marc Savard, among others. The NFL kickstarted a movement in their league to eliminate hits to the head from the game, and the NHL soon followed suit. And like the NFL, the NHL instituted stupid, difficult to enforce rules that have only resulted in consternation and anger among players, teams, and fans.
So, why are we seeing more concussions these days? And more importantly, what can be done to make less? We could talk all day about this, but I’ll give you a nice, to-the-point list that you can keep in your pocket just in case an argument in your cubicle breaks out in the next few days about the NHL and concussions…
- Concussions are simply diagnosed better these days. It’s like cancer: people always wonder why more people have cancer these days. I always argue that you also see less people mysteriously get sick and die. Correlation, no? Today, people have a better understanding of the dangers and seriousness of concussions, so there’s more of an effort to diagnose and treat them. And let’s not also forget, players don’t lie about them like they used to. With all of the money being paid to players, teams (businesses) have plenty of incentive to protect their assets.
- Padding has turned into armor. In the never-ending quest to make the best elbow and shoulder pads, leather and foam has turned into rigid, rock hard plastic. The significance? Back in the day, if you took a shot on the chin off someone’s shoulder, at least there was a bit of cushion. Today, they might as well allow players to put foil on their knuckles.
- Helmets and shields and such. We look back at games in the 70s and watch players frolic around the ice wearing no sort of protection on their heads. The curly messes and flowing manes blew in the wind as players skated around. Yeah, those guys were a little nuts to do that. Blocking a slap shot with a helmet is unpleasant as it is. But I wonder if you noticed something: players back them tended to hit lower than they do now. In today’s game, players check by finishing by driving their shoulders up. Even if there’s no intention to do so, you’re going to catch someone in the head once in awhile. Without helmets, players would typically employ the hip check to lay a body on another player. Hip checks today are a lost art, and most end up being submarines. The extra protection, whether it be helmets or in the increasing size and prevalence of face shields, it gives players a false sense of security when putting hits near the head area.
- The “new” NHL speeds the game up. I wasn’t a fan of the “new” NHL when it was first invented after the lockout. They took out the clutching and grabbing and removed the red line to allow two line passes. The idea was to increase the speed and flow of the game. The results? One thing it did was that it led to players flopping any chance they could get in order to draw a penalty. But more importantly to the topic at hand, it did lead to a faster game (not that it wasn’t already fun). Without the obstruction, players could skate around the ice untouched, literally skating faster than if they had to avoid sticks and arms. Momentum equals mass times velocity. Get the idea?
- Hits are counted as a stat. Flyers’ radio color analyst and former defenseman Chris Therien brought this up the other night. With hits counted as a stat, players go out of their way to make sure they finish their check, even when it’s really not necessary. When it’s time to sign a new contract, hits are used as a bargaining chip for more money or years. If you remove the incentive, you remove some of the hits.
- Bad in-game penalties. The current headshot rule is terrible. If the ref calls it, it’s a 5 minute major and a game misconduct. The game is fast. Refs miss all sorts of penalties and intricacies of the game as it is, and now they’re expected to have an even bigger potential impact on the game if they end up tossing a player for a hockey play. Players have already been tossed for completely clean and legal hits. So since the refs are now trigger shy with this penalty, they’ve incorrectly called hits to the head with intentionally wrong calls (like a roughing or interference). They’d rather be wrong with allowing a player to stay in the game than be wrong and throwing an innocent player out. I don’t blame them. This strict rule also creates a dangerous environment where puck carriers are given a misguided feeling of safety and protection by the rule. This leads to some guys skating with their heads down. This leads to lights out, even if the hit is perfectly legal.
- Inconsistent secondary discipline. In the beginning of the season, I praised Brendan Shanahan here for being a strict disciplinarian and really putting his foot down on these rulebreakers. Half a season later, we all now realize it’s the same story, just a different person in Shanny. One of my biggest pet peeves with his rulings is how much the resulting injury is taken into account when suspending or not suspending a player. I’ve seem numerous filthy hits this season where the hitter gets off free because the player he plastered (or attempted to plaster) popped right back up.
No one likes seeing these concussions in the game. And I just hope that the NHL takes a hard look at the situation and the rules in place before they go and make some silly rules to deal with the problem.
Unfortunately, I’m not holding my breath for a good decision.