OK, so I'm a tad premature with this post title but let's face it: the era of goonery in hockey is dying. The issue of concussions with all its after effects is on-going. It remains a big issue, even though it seems it is no longer the flavor of the week/month/season. Continual lawsuits against the NHL keep pouring in from former NHL players so the issue is far from dead. Some players involved in these lawsuits rarely played an NHL game and get labeled as "cashing in" , especially after the whole NFL concussion saga was "resolved." (The NFL reportedly paid out $765 million to thousands of former players a couple years ago.) This may be true to whatever extent. However, some bigger names like Rick Vaive and Gary Leeman were listed former players involved in the suit in late 2013. Since then, many more have jumped on the wagon.
The latest came this week from two former no-name players and a big part of the allegations are that three in 10 retired players have, or will have, brain damage from head injuries or concussions. A couple of key points that are still relevant in the lawsuits now (via Scott Burnside, ESPN):
• The NHL knew or should have known about scientific evidence that players who sustain repeated head injuries are at greater risk for illnesses and disabilities both during their hockey careers and later in life.
• Even after the NHL created a concussion program to study brain injuries affecting NHL players in 1997, the league took no action to reduce the number and severity of concussions during a study period from 1997 to 2004. "Plaintiffs relied on the NHL's silence to their detriment," the suit says.
• The league didn't do anything to protect players from unnecessary harm until 2010, when it made it a penalty to target a player's head.
I guess that falls into the whole proactive and reactive part of management. It's not really that simple though. As in life, most new rules and protocols are the result of reactionary implementations. Hey, it is what it is, even if it's wrong at times. But allow me to challenge that.
CHECK YOURSELF BEFORE YOU WRECK YOURSELF
At the same time, I don't get what part of a player's mind thinks that multiple blows to the head is gonna all turn out fine for them. If you fall off your bike and land on your head and see a million stars and can't even talk coherently or know where you are......are you gonna take preventative measures to not fall off your bike again to avoid that situation from happening again? Well the logical person would because the experience really didn't feel so damned good did it? But hey, we have laws now that you are supposed to wear a helmet when biking. The powers that be's way of protecting us from ourselves, because you know, accidents can happen and... so many people aren't logical and carry on being reckless even after such events.
-These lawsuits brought forward by the thousands of players / players' families etc etc hold some relevance. Bill Daley and Gary Bettman are not saying squat about it (wisely) but management is now taking the measures to protect players from illegal headshots with their stiff penalties but it's not enough. Not yet. There are still too many concussions happening.
-Don Cherry always preached that players' hard plastic protective gear should be abolished and that the old school gear be brought back in because players will not clobber each other as hard with lesser gear. While he is right on many fronts on the matter the truth is it's not gonna happen. Players will want better protection no matter what . That is player :"safety" 101. The game is faster, players are bigger and shots are harder so less protection isn't gonna fly.
So here are a few ideas that I propose. Me...the old school guy that has been watching since 1977....
1. Increase suspension length for headshots. Not the questionable ones. The blatant ones. Maybe that will eradicate head shots from the game (no it won't). How about taller guys can't hit shorter guys because they will make head contact. Maybe they provide Zdeno Chara with a list of all the players he should avoid hitting (which is everybody) just to cover his ass from aforementioned big suspension. Hell, the same applies to players that are about the same height as the player they are hitting. More on this below.
2. No more staged fighting. Oh sweet lord I can't believe I'm saying this, because I love fights. But hey, NHL, when you have all these lawsuits coming your way....you won't lose that many more seats without staged fights (I used to think otherwise. Not anymore.) So, that's less goons rattling their brains off the inside of their skulls and less lawsuits/disease/death as a result. What good does a staged fight do anyway except avenge my hunger for violence and blood? I used to believe it shifted momentum. After watching it closely I do not believe it does. On top of that, teams are becoming less interested in face punchers with not much other talent, as they are realizing that rolling 4 lines is the way to go. So there is that.
3. No more fighting period. So, in this case, if Henrik Sedin gets smoked nobody defends him. No, no tough guy avenges his superstar player / buddy. Hitter gets off the hook. Was it dirty? Well then we'll just let YOU GUYS (NHL) determine that guy's fate. I'm sure you'll come through. Oh wait, this already happened.
4. Maybe just take hitting out of the game entirely. Kill the aggression. Hitting generally increases the anger levels of the victim and teammates of the guy who was hit. That usually leads to more hitting and fighting...which creates a risk for concussions. So, you can push and shove the hitter after the hit, maybe give him a facewash, bitch, whine, yell, insult his mother, but by god don't punch him! He might get a concussion! I guess this is where we are headed. They already dissuade retaliation with the instigator rule and the team has to kill a 5 minute major penalty. Dumb dumb dumb.
SO WHAT NOW?
Headshots happen in the hitting process. A shift in either player's position can lead to a headshot. It's a game of seconds and inches. How is it even to be avoided 100%? We see it in today's NHL all the time. It cannot be avoided 100% of the time.
What is the NHL going to do with all these lawsuits coming their way? Just pay them all out and carry on? Yes. That was a different era, so they can do that. But can they really turn a blind eye to what's happening today? They are making all these rules to minimize concussions and it's helping to a degree, but the fact of the matter is: this is a contact sport. Concussions are going to continue to occur. The next generation will come after them with lawsuits and headaches saying the NHL did not do enough to protect them. That is the nature of the beast in this culture of ours.
I'M JUST SAYIN'
How much do you care about the health of these players? If you do care then pick one of my options above to cure the issue (there is only one right option if you want a cure to the problem.)
Personally, I'd like to think that players and management know the risk of a contact sport. I would love to see the players have to sign a detailed waiver form before they play at various levels of hockey and the aggression of the sport remains. That's me, the redneck. But these lawsuits have me thinking that the game will have to evolve much further to prevent concussions, to the points that I mentioned above.
A contact sport. So..... where does the madness end? Do we just say "it is what it is" and minimize damage as much as possible? Where is the morality in that? Progressive minimalization? Do you want to cure concussions? Well then there is only one right answer above. But who the hell wants to go there?
What say you?
The title of this post has been brought to you by LOTR: