Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Not Good Enough

Today I spoke with an ER doctor who researches the long-term impact of head injuries on the victims' health. He told me there's a recent study of the personal histories of prison inmates on death row that shows the vast majority of them have had either a single serious head injury or a series of them at some point in their lives. IT doesn't excuse their criminal behaviour, but doctors are increasingly believing those injuries may have contributed to the personality problems that *did* cause the behaviour. Other studies tie repeated concussion to early-onset dementia, depression and volatile personality changes. In football players, repeated concussion has even been linked to premature death. Some ex-NHLers talk about still getting headaches and bouts of irritability and depression years after they sustained the original injury.

Despite all this though, the NHL general managers are just now coming to the conclusion that perhaps hits to the head should have some official consequence. They've decided blind-side head shots will be penalized with a minor or major at the referee's discretion and will be up for review and possible suspension by the league afterwards. This is where the proposed new rule loses any real power it might have had to change the behaviour of these players.

Matt Cooke blind-sided Marc Savard last weekend, inflicting a grade-two concussion on him. "Concussion" is a euphemism for what really happened, though. What Cooke actually did was slam his shoulder into the skull of Savard, smacking Savard's brain against bone hard enough to make him seriously sick. What he did was cause a brain injury like the ones people get in car crashes or by falling from great heights. The action was no different than deliberately rear-ending someone with your car or pushing them off a second-story ledge. Yet, even though the video showed Cooke driving his shoulder into Savard's head; even though Cooke has already had two previous suspensions for hitting players in the head, Colin Campbell decided not to suspend him this time.

Why? Because Campbell didn't suspend Mike Richards for nearly decapitating David Booth on the same kind of play earlier this year. If there ever was a classic case of two wrongs not making a right, it's this one. Campbell could have, and probably should have, nailed Richards for attempting to injure Booth. He didn't, with the explanation that shoulder-to-head hits are legal. Now he's using that ill-advised precedent to justify letting Cooke off the hook too, on the very day the GMs decided that kind of hit should be banned. You'd think, perhaps, with the winds of change whistling through the league's plush offices, Campbell might have decided to show some guts and punish the guy who just committed a fairly heinous example of the exact kind of hit about which GMs expressed serious concern.

The decision is a poor one and the justification for it even worse. Players like Vincent Lecavalier have spoken out about it. Even Bill Guerin, Cooke's own teammate, has said the NHL is wrong to allow that hit to go unpunished. When a veteran player breaks the unspoken rule that if you can't say anything nice about a teammate you don't say anything at all, you know there's serious concern within the ranks of those whose heads, quite literally, are on the line every night.

What Campbell's refusal to suspend Cooke really does though, is raise questions about how effective the new rule about blind-side hits will really be. A penalty on the ice, even a major, seems a small price to pay for injuring a player the way Savard has been injured. The real teeth of this new rule comes in the mandatory review for suspension by the league. If the Cooke case is anything to go by, however, that provision could end up being more like a newborn's bite than anything that could really hurt an offending player or team. Who's to say Campbell won't review a play and decide that it really wasn't a blindside hit at all; that the victim had seen the offender at the last second and that there should be no suspension?

The problem is that the NHL is dealing with semantics and language when the effect... the devastating, lifelong effect...of these hits is so much bigger than anything abstract. It's players lives and health they're talking about with those imaginary lines in the sand.

GMs want head shots banned. Players are worried they could be next and want something done. The scientific evidence that brain injuries caused by severe impact to the head are responsible for long-term health problems is piling up. The NHL should want to protect its only valuable asset: the talent on the ice. But even though this is a small first step, it doesn't go nearly far enough in keeping players safe.


Paul B. said...

I believe Colin Campbell is a moron. However, If I remember correctly he was not involved in the decision regarding the Richards/Booth incident as his son Gregory is a member of the Florida Panthers.

That doesn't change the fact that the decison of not suspending Cooke is more than unbelievably idiotic. In fact, all I heard from what he said is "all you pieces of shit like Cooke, you're free to
go for the head, at least until the end of the year. "

I guess the NHL can't not learn from past mistakes.

CheGordito said...

And that's why I'm not a fan of NHL hockey. I love the Canadiens, and will cheer for national teams. But the NHL, well, sucks.

I was very impressed by the women's hockey games in the Olympics - not the same kind of cheap shots as you see with men.

Thanks for keeping up the blog. All the best.

DB said...

There is no point in trying to judge this rule until we see the length of any suspensions under it. If a hit like Cooke's only gets a few games then nothing much will have changed. If the suspensions are 10 to 20 games for a first time offender then the rule will have an impact.

The other factor that will impact effectiveness is what will be considered a blindside hit? The closer to dead-on the more effective the penalty will be.

Many are saying that the best solution to headshots is to repeal the instigator rule or put another way, the best way to stop headshots is to allow players to punch one another in the head. Makes as much sense as most of the Price/Halak "debate".

One change I would like to see is teams being fined for each game a player is suspended (say $250,000 per game. It could also be stepped - $50,000 for the first 5 games, $100,000 for the next 5, $500,000 for 11 and more) with the fine counting against the team's cap the following year (This would give GMs the necessary time to juggle their rosters to meet the cap - something they couldn't do if they got a large fine late in the season).

The fines would force GMs to consider the type of player they sign. Coaches would be less likely to put the goons on late in a game to settle scores or to send a message. Players who play on the edge may think twice before they cheapshot another player because they may find it hard to get another contract.

V said...

I could not agree with you more.

The NHL is often considered a bush league among professional leagues and it is a stance like this that rightfully contributes to that view.

I am not a fan of the NHL. I am not even that big a fan of Canadian hockey. In some ways, I believe both are systems corrupted by violence. Left to their own devices - without the threat of judicial or political intervention - both would devolve to something small and mean. I am convinced they would ultimtely both drive themselves out of business. Uncontrolled violence will destroy any sport except for the relatively few who need that sort of thing in their lives.

Without even knowing why, I think I became a Habs fan because the team represents the beautiful side of the game (I have argued here before it's beautiful side is largely created by it's French influence (I don't speak French) but I digress). The Habs have never advocated for violence. Their game has been and still is built on speed, creativity and toughness.

I like to think it was the Habs and their special style of game that saved the NHL and hockey about 30 years ago, when the league allowed the style of the Broad Street Bullies to prevail. Their success breeded an ethic that was becoming pervasive - their success was built on intimidation and was being broadly imitated by any team short on talent and long on aspirations - most teams in other words. And without a superb Habs team built in the Canadien tradition of speed, creativity and toughness (particularly the latter personified by Larry Robinson reining in Dave Schultz) who knows where the NHL and hockey would be right now.

The league always seems to be teetering between beauty and anarchy and their debate/stance on headshots is an another example of it... feels like the anarchists are winning for now. Time for another Stanley Cup win by the Habs. Good always conquers evil and the sooner the better.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of your observations JT. And although you may be right that the GM's did not go far enough, I disagree that it is a small step. I think it is a HUGE step for the old boys club of the NHL to finally agree that these type of hits should be illegal. This has been argued for years, but nothing has been done until now. Too late for great players like Lindros, Kariya, Lafontaine, (and now Savard) who were never the same player after their head injuries.

I think the significance is that making blind side hits illegal will now give it the stigma of a cheapshot or a "dirty play", just like, say, spearing, as an example. Spearing still happens and there are times when you want to impale the other player, but you don't see it a lot because it is seen as a cheapshot, and players do not want that stigma. Because it is illegal, it will eventually make its way into the player code of behaviour and hopefully be as rare as spears, kicks, bites, or hitting the goalie.

Larry said...

JT, as usual you have made tremendous points. The stance (or lack thereof) of the league in general and the milquetoast recent response of the GMs is deplorableand. It makes my blood boil and causes me seethe in helpless rage at the idiotic responses to such clear, black and white issues. The inequality of a few games suspension and the loss of weeks or months (if not more) of playing time for the injured player is infuriating.

One of the greatest things about the women's game and why it is so enjoyable to hockey lovers is that it's based purely upon skill and not goonery or thuggery.

Keep up your good writing.

DKerr said...

JT and other responders, you are right on with your comments. The only thing I would add is wait for the "he put himself in a vulnerable position" to come from the cheap shot supporters.

Bottom 6 guys like Cooke should be the type of player the league should be able to make an example for the rest of the players. It bothers me so much when high-end players like Richards and Pronger go for cheap shots. Seeing those two with gold medals around their necks raised the bile level abit as I will always perceive them as cheap shot artists (did I digress?). That the league looks the other way is shameful.

Anonymous said...

First, I love your blog, just having recently found it. One of the few that is really well-written. This post is a good example.

Second, I've often thought that soccer has a lot to offer for this subject (and it applies to violence and general nonsense in other sports as well). A red card is given straight away for a "dangerous challenge", and we're talking about something an order of magnitude less dangerous that what you wrote about. A straight red card is immediate suspension for the remainder of the game, and can (and usually does) mean suspension for the next two games as well. Financial penalties are also considered as an add-on.

Third, if the Habs truly are steeped in the ethic of speed, creativity and toughness (as opposed to intimidation with violence), then the Habs are for me (I am not strongly aligned) - may they prosper.

Thanks for the great post.