Concussions in all levels of hockey have become newsworthy with everyone having an opinion on the subject. Many of these opinions are based on the fact that when hockey players, playing one of the world’s fastest sports, take hits to the head their brains get scrambled. Depending on how severe the hit to the head, there is no doubt damage is being done, whether one wears a helmet or not. Others have opinions based on how the game used to be played and that hits to head are part of the game, as is fighting. What the issue is now is head injuries caused by illegal checks and fighting, not the checking or the hitting, with the current dilemma being whether the professional game should evolve, as it has many times since its first days, or stay the same and simply make minor adjustments to the rules. The problem unfortunately is much more than that and goes farther than just the game. It is the antiquated mind-set of team owners, the NHL management, the players, the media and the fans. It is has much to do with our society, where a general lack of accountability and respect for ones fellow man seems waning.
Having passionately played, coached and followed the game for over forty years the current problems with concussions caused by head shots, whether by elbow, shoulder, stick or fist start with the game being played on the ice.
The most important concepts of hockey are time and space, which are truly the guts of hockey. The object of the game is for the offensive team to get into prime scoring space. To get a scoring opportunity the offensive team needs the time and space to do so, to create more time for the player with the puck and more space from opponents checking. The defensive team wants to limit the time and space the offensive team has, as well as trying to regain control of the puck. Support and positioning are also important concepts because one individual player, no matter the skill, does not win hockey games, teams do.
Dealing with time and space has everything to do with support, positioning and checking; for the intent of checking is to regain control of the puck through control of the opponent’s body and through the techniques of angling and positional play. Support means backing up a teammate who is engaged in a one-on-one battle along the boards or skating to an area of the ice so that the puck carrier has an easy pass. It also means driving to the net, giving your teammate with the puck the option of just throwing the puck towards the net and perhaps creating a rebound opportunity. The principle of support is one of the most important play concepts of the game and is the basis from which other concepts and team play systems come from. The purpose of checking is threefold; to regain possession of the puck, separate the puck from the puck carrier in a safe and legal manner and to delay or contain the opponent which enables a teammate to come in and support. Finishing ones check and taking your man sends a message to the other team that whenever they touch the puck they will have to waste precious microseconds looking around, feeling pressured to just get rid of the puck and that each play they attempt they will have to work for it.
To check properly a player must have good positional ability, agility, balance, strength and defensive awareness to stay between the puck and their own net. They also need anticipation, to read the movements of their opponents as play progresses and be aware of options available to an opponent who is in possession of the puck. Being very aware and in the moment and knowing the movements and position of the opponents and your own teammates is what the better players possess, it’s called vision. This all happens in a game that is one of the fastest on earth. Hockey is truly an intense, high speed game with success only happening when every player on the team is working together, with each player becoming stronger than they are individually.
How quick and intense is hockey? A shift lasts anywhere from 35 to 45 seconds. And if you get back to the bench spent and breathing hard after those seconds, you did your job while you were out there. Though the game is 60 minutes long, at the pro-level the team’s best defenseman will get about 30 minutes of ice time spread out over 25-30 shifts. A top three forward will play about 22 shifts for a total ice time of about 19- 20 minutes, with many fourth line players receiving about eight to ten minutes over about 11 shifts. Lots of stuff happens on that sheet of ice during those precious seconds. The sheer speed of the game forces the player to read and react, in most cases by instinct alone, which unfortunately applies grey areas to the part of the brain which makes decisions.
Cheap shots, especially to the head, slashes to the arm or stick to the groin and other vicious disrespectful acts were for decades enforced by the players themselves. Up to the time the Instigator rule was implemented in the NHL, if a player intentionally threw an elbow into an opponent’s head and knocked him flat, with a concussion or not, that player knew he would be held accountable, because before his victim even hit the ice, one of his teammates would be right in their face, many times throwing punches upon arrival. Any player who tries to hold an opponent accountable for any unnecessary and disrespectful actions by attempting to fight them now receives an instigator penalty; a 2 min. Minor penalty, 5 minute Fighting Major and a 10 min. Misconduct. While up to until the current 2011-2012 season, the player who threw the shoulder or elbow to the other players head in the first place would receive a 2 minute elbowing minor, with any other additional penalties called being up to the discretion of the referee. If there was a suspension at all from the NHL for any intentional hits to the head it was for, on average, two or three games, thus rarely and truly would the offending player be held accountable. While the player hit in the head could very well miss months and in some cases never play again, thrown into a life of a near-like living death, with headaches, memory loss, dementia and brain damage. The NHL has tweaked the rules this season where any hits to the head; a flagrant lack of respect for another player, a player is now given a 5 min. Major penalty and an automatic Game Misconduct and once again if the referee decides it was a deliberate intent to injure, a match penalty can then be called. So far this season, any suspensions handed out by the NHL for intentional hits to the head have been for 5-6 games. How about the idea of making any hit to the head a deliberate attempt to injure, with the onus on the player doing the hitting to prove by his actions, the video evidence, and the eyes of the referee to prove if a suspension is warranted. If a hit to the head is proven intentional suspend the player for 40 games or more. Make it so he is accountable for his actions and see how this awareness and responsibility of what you are doing with your body on the ice, as well as your stick, does for the incidents of deliberate hits to the head.
Two basic situations develop where fists are thrown in a hockey game. With the speed of the game, the passion and the intenseness of its play, the blood is pumping and is why many times, pushing and shoving matches after a whistle, most times in front of one of the net, will sometimes escalate and punches are thrown. The other situation is when two players, both usually the designated fighters on their respective teams, who might play 6-7 minutes of the game, come out onto the ice or on a faceoff and agree to fight. The play stops while these two guys act out a set routine of removing their helmets and/or elbow pads and going at it. The referees wait until the fists aren’t flying anymore and go in and break it up. Both players sent to either bench or dressing room and two fighting majors given, with play resumed after a faceoff, with neither team playing shorthanded, both still just trying to score a goal. Some call this amusing entertainment. During the 2010-2011 NHL season 7% of concussions were caused by a fist to the head, 44% caused by legal hits to the head or body, 26% by accident and 17% from illegal hits to the head or illegal bodychecks. Everyone on the planet knows what happens to a person’s brain after receiving too many shots to the head, in most cases even after only one hit to the head. Talk to an aged boxer. A great idea considered by many, is for the NHL to drop their current playing rosters from 18 skaters to 17, which would seriously force the coaches and management to consider who would they rather have playing that game, a designated fighter or a skater who might actually score a goal.
Treating all hits to the head as intentional attempts to injure and getting rid of designated fighters in the NHL are only a few steps that still need to be taken. But that’s okay because the game of hockey has evolved many times since its inception and is still very much one of the truly great team sports. Personally I love the game, but also realize that hockey at the NHL level is more entertainment than sport. We want our favourite players to be superhero versions of ourselves. Players who are not playing for just the unbelievable money but are playing for their love of the game, which many are in fact, and that no matter the pain, sacrifice and discipline that is needed, they do whatever it takes to win. As a business the NHL competes against many other businesses, such as other sports, entertainment, news and politics so it needs to get our attention, our interest and of course our dollars.
Much of the game of hockey is about passion. It’s a great game to watch and talk about, a pleasure to play. A game which brings everything from inspiration to excitement into the lives of hockey fans worldwide. The game is evolving, but any reforms to the rules pertaining to hits to the head, will not change the other 99% of the game. The players have got to start thinking and respecting each other. They’ve got to be held accountable and know they will be held accountable for their actions on the ice, as much or if not more than they are held accountable in other areas of their lives. All one has to do is watch a World Cup rugby match and watch those warrior-athletes go hard at it with no protection and then after the game they hug and shake hands. Hockey players and coaches will find ways to adapt because the game becomes their lives, and they will think long, hard and often about how to gain a competitive edge to be successful on that sheet of ice come game time. Because the bottom line is that hockey is simply a form of playing.
Play is what teaches us how to get along, about trust and bonding with others. It teaches us how to behave appropriately in society; it is the activity we engage with others and is most often a shared moment rather than a solitary pleasure. Play teaches collective trust – the feeling that each player can let down their defences of their egos and at least for a moment be a part of a team, so they can experience the fun and joy and pride that comes with success as a team. Play also teaches us about compromise, how to share, how to interact with others and how to play fair. Through the experience of play we learn to participate equally and openly with our fellow humans. We learn to appreciate and take delight in one another’s efforts. We learn about respect. Play is where we learn to become better people. How we play dictates what type of person we are.
Further reading: An Essay by Ken Dryden, the Globe and Mail newspaper, Saturday, October 1, 2011, Section F, Pgs 1, 6-7.