Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Looming Head Injury Crisis in the NHL

NHL logoFlyers logoSens logoThere are many theories as to why there has been an increase in head injuries in the NHL, but it’s hard to refute the reality that they are on the rise. Here are some statistics. The most recent example is the hit laid on Dean McAmmond by Steve Downie in a pre-season game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Ottawa Senators.

The increased speed, strength and size of the players coupled with the stricter enforcement of various obstruction penalties is one of the main story-lines mentioned whenever the issue crops up. Replace a corroded and rotten length of pipe in a larger network and the result is an improved and speedier flow of water. But it can also put unexpected pressure on other areas within the system. Refuse to deal with the subsequent pressure points and the end result could be a total collapse.

These types of injuries aren’t going away anytime soon and not because of any lack of suspensions that will continue to follow. It’s mainly to do with the fact that most teams speak out of both sides of their mouths on the issue as well as the status afforded the nasty pieces of work known for such tactics.

When teams have a player dishing out illegal hits they often respond with subtle spinning laced with claims that it was unintentional, the speed of the game made it unavoidable and of course, it was the fault of the player on the receiving end for not keeping his head up.

Add in the praise for performance in battle that trumps any potential suspension and the tacit approval shown by teams towards players who can take out opponents and make the opposing teams more intent on revenge than winning games and you've got plenty of incentive. For many fans, the revenge scenarios that follow these types of hits are hard to beat in terms of intensity and further contribute to the validation certain players receive.

With the NHL desperate to improve its image and suffering under the delusion that it can market the game of hockey to a much wider audience, there is almost no need for any additional pressure to make them act on the problem of head injuries. At some point during the coming season they will address the issue. So, what is the solution?

Outlaw hits to the head completely. There will no longer be such a thing as a legal hit to the head. What about in cases where the height difference between 2 players means that a hit to the head is unavoidable? Well, it's true that this will fundamentally alter the nature of the game. Extremely short players will become the new untouchables and will be drafted in numbers never before seen. I’m kidding.

Despite the physics defense offered by players like Pronger in the past, height difference does not make head shots inevitable. Of course there will be cases where a player has his head down and is flattened by a full body check without having a shoulder directed into his melon, where a referee's judgement can play a part in making the final call. Anyway, this is more a case of a player running head first into his opponent as opposed to someone setting out with the clear intent to injure.

Any one of charging, boarding, use of elbows, leaving your feet or a late hit is enough to rate a body-check as illegal. But also, following through on a hit when a player becomes prone by lurching forward or falling off balance and putting his head into a dangerous position should classify any hit that follows as a penalty and possibly worthy of a suspension. The opposing skater who may have been lining up a hit on such a player must have the potential pulling-up instinct firmly engrained enough so that he can avoid delivering the hit or at least be able to lessen the impact.

The result? The awkward blundering skaters will become sought after players just like the runts. Their unpredictability and potential for drawing suspensions will allow them to skate undaunted through entire teams for easy goals and...

In fact, restraint is already part of hockey just as it is in every sport and in every situation in life. The fact that 2 people can look at the same video of a hit and disagree on exactly what happened is a testament to the speed of the game and the various aspects of the sport that appeal to those 2 individuals. Regardless of the unique speed element of the game as compared to other sports, the rules as well as the mentality surrounding hits to the head have to change.

Either that or keep ramping up the suspensions until they really matter.

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