Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Great Debate

Sheldon Souray. David Booth. Matt D'Agostini. Darcy Tucker. Andreas Lilja. Robert Nilsson. Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Petr Sykora. Chris Drury. Ole-Kristian Tollefsen. Kurt Sauer. Victor Hedman.

As NHL general managers meet in Toronto to discuss the head shot issue, that's the list of NHLers currently out of their team's lineup with concussions. Jonathan Toews would have been on the list as well, but he returned to play this week. Many others have had concussions of varying degrees of seriousness this season. Many others will have them before the year is out. And still others will have them and try to cover it up and keep playing, because they think the team needs them or because they're barely hanging on to an NHL job and they can't afford to take time off that might give a rival a chance at their spots.

I've accused the NHL before of turning a blind eye to the dramatically rising problem of head injury in the league. It's comfortable for the managers to leave things as they are, even though it's been proven that the after-effects of concussion can negatively impact a player's health for the rest of his life, and despite studies showing early-onset dementia and premature death in some athletes who've had repeated head injuries. So, it should be a good thing that the GMs are finally seriously discussing the issue.

Unfortunately, these men won't be able to really change anything. For one thing, they're too divided a group. As Rob Ray pointed out on TSN's Off the Record this evening, GMs will fight to protect the type of team they're building. A manager with a small, speedy team will be more interested in rule changes that reduce obstruction and rough play, while a guy who's building a big, tough, hard-hitting team will strive to protect his own interests. Any rule change that happens as the result of an agreement within that group will inevitably be a half-hearted compromise. They may say a player who hits another on his blind side will be penalized. Then they'll spend forever negotiating to determine what constitutes a blind side.

The problem is so deep-rooted in the game at this point that a meeting of GMs and a carefully-worded rule change won't fix it. Almost every player you hear discussing the issue mentions the word "respect." And that's the crux of it. If a player respects another, he'll not nail a guy who doesn't have the puck so hard he knocks him out. Or hit him from behind, or head him off while he's cutting around the net, or while his head is turned in the neutral zone. But when players are taught to hit and hit hard, preferably to hurt, from the first day they're allowed to body check in minor hockey, you can't put those kinds of brakes on him when he reaches the pro level.

Respect is something that comes from good parenting in childhood, solid friends, good coaches who emphasize sportsmanship and upstanding examples among the pros kids worship. Too few kids get those kinds of influences in their formative years in the game, and it shows when they treat their opponents like targets when they become professionals themselves. That's a grassroots problem, and not one a meeting of GMs can fix overnight.

Violence isn't a new thing in hockey. There have always been crazy-ass players who'll lose it and try to hurt someone. But the almost cavalier damage more and more players are inflicting on opponents is a relatively new development. Some blame the equipment that's like hitting a rock wall. Some say it's because the players are bigger and faster and have more power to hurt when flying at full speed in an enclosed space. Everyone brings up the respect issue.

Of those issues, equipment can be changed. Mark Messier is helping develop a new a helmet to help reduce the damage of impact on the brain. Other manufacturers are working on shoulder and elbow pads with padding on the outside, protecting the players from direct contact with the molded plastic underneath. Respect is going to be tougher. It's going to have to start with education for coaches and parents, and strict rules of conduct starting at the earliest levels of hockey with serious consequences for breaking them. The issue of increasing size and speed among player who play in rinks that are not increasing in size can't be fixed. It could have been, fifteen years ago when nearly NHL team built a new, state-of-the-art rink. But every one of them built around the traditional-sized ice surface and now can't change without great difficulty and expense.

So, in an effort to reduce impact on players' heads and make the game both cleaner and more exciting, I think the most effective solution would be to make the game four-on-four. You have to admit some of the most exciting hockey we've seen this year has been during coincidental minor penalties, and in OT. That's because the players have room to be creative and to move. They do not, on the other hand, have time to think about rushing across the ice to nail an opponent in the head. With more ice to cover, a player just can't take the chance of taking himself out of the play like that.

I know it would be a radical change to the game we know. But there is a precedent. In the early days of hockey, six skaters, including a rover, played on each side. As the skills and speed of the players increased, however, the rover had less and less to do. By 1923 every pro league had decided the extra skater just crowded the ice, and the rover position was eliminated. And other changes have come into the game in more recent years, like the institution of the two-referee system.

Four-on-four sounds like it's pushing things too far, but really, what would be lost? Not speed or skill. Certainly not dramatic goaltending or solid defence. Maybe a reduction in rosters would mean fewer jobs for the fringe players, but many of those tend to be goons or the guilty parties in dangerous hits in the first place. The NHL wants more goals. Four-on-four would provide that. It would open the ice up for the skilled players and let them really shine. It would also be easier for the refs to be more consistent, with fewer players to watch.

Anyway, that's my suggestion. I suspect it's at least an effective solution to the head shot problem as the GMs will come up with at their meetings. In the end, though, someone is going to have to do something to protect these guys from themselves, and it might have to be something radical.

In the meantime, while NHL general managers talk, the list of damaged brains in hockey grows longer.

4 comments:

Ed said...

While I completely support your proposal for four-on-four hockey, the NHLPA will never agree to a change that will cost their membership jobs. At best, a move to four-on-four would have to be compensated by expansion; two new teams would be sufficient.

David said...

I love watching 4-on-4 when it happens. However, I suspect coaches would find a way to suck the life out of that format the same way they have 5-on-5. It's a nice dream though.

DB said...

The number of head injuries is a serious problem for the NHL, but I don't believe 4 on 4 is the answer. I believe the solution is better equipment, enforcing the charging and boarding rules, and suspensions.

I saw Rob Ray on OTR and thought most of his answers were straight out of the hockey player cliche manual. His point that a GM of a tough team might not want tougher rules on hits has some merit, but fails to recognize that every GM has to worry about the impact of concusions on his team's finances and playoff chances.

With the advent of very large, long-term contracts the financial hit to a team of a concused player can be very large. Insurance is expensive and will only go higher if the concusion problem is not addressed. A team could also be stuck paying millions to "healthy" but unproductive players (like P Bergeron last year).

To me the issue of respect is a red herring. Players in the past did not respect the opposition. If you want proof just look at the Flyers in the 70s, John Ferguson walking out of a restaurant when a Leaf walked in, and the stick swinging incidents from the 40s,50s, 60s and 70s.

To address the problem the NHL needs to enforce its charging and boarding rules. The rule for Boarding is (charging is similar):

A minor or major penalty, at the discretion of the Referee, based upon the degree of violence of the impact with the boards, shall be imposed on any player who checks an opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to be thrown violently in the boards.

The sole criteria is how hard the player hits the other player. Whether the player hits with his shoulder or keeps his feet on the ice does not matter. It's a penalty if the hit is too hard.

If the players can adjust to the crack down on hooking, interference, and holding then they will be able to adjust to a crackdown on how hard they hit other players.

The NHL also needs to suspend players and fine his team when another player is injured from an illegal hit.

I propose that a team be fined $250,000 for every game a player is suspended and the fine would count against the team's salary cap in the following season. The maximum charge in any one season would be $5,000,000 with any excess being carried forward to subsequent years. The fines would not be used in calculating the floor.

There are two reasons for charging the fines against the cap in the subsequent year: (1) logistics - it would be impossible to get below the cap for some teams if a 20 game suspension ($5M cap hit)came late in the year (2) the GM will be reminded of what caused the cap hit during the off-season when most contracts are signed.

Why punish the team for the actions of one or two players? Two reasons: (1) the most effective way to change culture is to hold the team accountable for the actions of any of its players (2) minor penalties have always been about punishing the player and the team so why shouldn't a suspension work the same way.

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