A quick glance at today's NHL injury report reveals there are currently 14 NHL players who are missing time because of concussion or post-concussion syndrome. They range from goons like Raitis Ivanans to offensive players like Paul Kariya and Marc Savard. In the first couple of months since the NHL changed the rules to protect players' heads, it's not encouraging to see those kinds of numbers.
Admittedly, some of the concussions are just weird. Atlanta goaltender, Ondrej Pavelec, passed out and whacked his head on the ice. Ivanans got a punch in the head during a fight. Cam Janssen of the Blues got accidentally clobbered by teammate Brad Winchester. Those are what you call incidental to the game, or, in Pavelec's case, plain old bad luck. Others, like Savard, Kariya and Philly's Ian Laperierre, are dealing with concussion trauma from previous injuries after what would now be considered illegal hits.
That means there are eight players who got hit since the rules changed, and have come away from those hits with concussions. The question the NHL must answer is: who's at fault in those cases? So far this year, we've seen Chicago defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson get two games for knocking Jason Pominville into the boards. Ottawa's Nick Foligno got a $2500 fine for clipping Hurricane Patrick Dwyer in the head. Both cases have come under fire in hockey circles; Hjalmarsson's hit because it appeared Pominville turned his back before the collision, and Foligno's because it was an unintentional consequence of a normal hockey play. Both victims in these cases have been accused of placing themselves in a "vulnerable position."
"A vulnerable position" is the newest addition to the hockey lexicon, and is rapidly becoming one of the most common phrases players utter. Senators' coach Cory Clouston brought it up when discussing the Foligno hit on Dwyer.
“Just so you know, if he misses his check, if he tried to stick check and the guy beat him, and gets a 3-on-2, or a 4-on-2 rush, we wouldn’t be real happy with him," said Clouston. "So we want our guys to be respectful, as far as when an opponent is in a vulnerable position, but we want our guys to be physical. To me, Nicky was just playing hockey.”
That's the question when the NHL is trying to determine fault. When is a guy just playing hockey, and when is he head-hunting? And following that, does it really matter, if the desired result of punishment for any kind of head injury is the reduction of injury overall?
A study of emergency room statistics for children five to 19 in Ontario reveals that hockey was by far the most common cause for concussion-related hospital visits. Of 6,429 sports-related concussions cited in the three-year period the study looked at, 2,057 were suffered while playing hockey. In Quebec, where checking doesn't start until players are older, the rates of concussion are four times lower.
The number of concussions among hockey's youngest players is certainly cause for concern. That the number seems directly related to the introduction of body checking in youth leagues is considered by many to be at the root of the problem in higher levels of hockey. If respect for the opponent, and the correct way to check a player...separating the person from the puck, not his head from his shoulders...aren't taught at a young age, the argument goes, then that lack of respect carries on through the player's hockey life. There's certainly some truth to that argument, and it's obvious when "dirty" players like Matt Cooke or Chris Pronger level someone from behind.
The line, and the argument, begin to blur when one takes into consideration hits like Hjalmarsson's and Foligno's. Neither player has a reputation for dirty play. Both expressed surprise and regret that what they'd considered "hockey plays" had resulted in league sanction. And both incidents spawned more discussion of what it means for a player to put himself in a vulnerable position. The discussion has raised the question about whether the new NHL rules about hitting from behind have caused players to take it for granted that the refs will protect them.
P.J.Stock blogged in March, 2010, "I teach my seven-year-old boy in novice hockey that just because it's a rule to not hit from behind, it doesn't mean that the rest of the players are going to follow it. So don't put yourself in a position with your back to anyone. You shouldn't be tripped because it's a penalty, yet players trip other players. It's the same thing for everything and the same for hitting from behind. If you eliminate the chances of being in that vulnerable position, you eliminate the chances of getting hit from behind."
Former NHL defenceman Jason York agrees. He addressed the issue in a column he wrote about the Hjalmarsson hit for the Ottawa Sun earlier this month.
"I am not condoning the hit and I agree that it was a hit from behind," he wrote. "But I don’t know why a forward who is waiting to get the puck out of the zone on the half-wall has his back turned to the opposing defencemen on the blue line. I look at that as a player not ready to do battle with a pinching defencemen, a player putting himself in a vulnerable position and a player trusting the referee and the new rules to protect him."
York and Stock aren't alone in their belief that NHL players have to be partially responsible for their own safety. Awareness of one's surroundings in a high-speed, high-collision environment like the NHL is vital to player survival. The problem is, even with the new rules to prevent deliberate headhunting, and with a player's perfect awareness of his own vulnerability, head injuries will still happen. That's because the game has become too fast for humans to play without getting hurt. The post-lockout rules prevent interference and crack down on stick fouls like hooking and holding that used to slow players down. That has meant there's little to hinder large men going at very fast speeds in a relatively small enclosed space. When those human missiles throw themselves at another man, they will often hurt the target.
York says as much in his Sun column.
"As a defenceman, when your partner went back to retrieve the puck, your job was to step in front of the forechecker and protect him because if he got ran that was on you," he remembers. "With the shrinking of the neutral zone and zero tolerance, players are now able to pick up tremendous amounts of speed through the neutral zone and, as the past few years have demonstrated, the results can be devastating."
Hockey Night in Canada's Jeff Marek sees the same thing developing in the post-lockout game.
"Maybe the best point is that hockey is not a contact sport. It used to be. Now, more than ever, it is a collision sport," Marek wrote last year. "Players are billiard balls slamming into each other with full force and every hit is for keeps. You can't hold up an on-coming attacker to protect your partner on the blueline nor can you get a stick into a guys hip to slow him down and lessen the impact of a body check. Those days are gone in favour of the "fly-zone" NHL. This graying of the area between clean/legal and dirty/cheap is one of the by-products that I don't think many saw coming when the new rules package was green-lighted."
So now the NHL is trying to stem the tide of players turning up with concussions by addressing the result rather than the root of the problem. It's a very good thing to warn players they need to respect their opponents and to punish those who don't do so. It's also a good thing to remind players to keep their heads up because not everyone will respect the rules. The problem is, in a game as fast as the NHL has become, accidents...and head injuries...will always happen. The league has managed to upgrade the quality of play on the ice, but in the process has put more players at risk.
The solutions to this problem won't happen or even be seriously considered until an NHL player dies from a head injury. The league needs to expand ice surfaces to give players somewhere to go with all that speed, or it needs to reduce the number of human missiles on the ice at one time. The former won't happen because too many teams have built new rinks with lots of seats and no room to make the ice bigger. The latter won't happen because it would be a fundamental change in a game notoriously reluctant to make them, and it would mean there would be fewer jobs for professional players.
So, as the NHL tries to police players who cause head injuries, it's really fighting an impossible battle. As long as the game is as fast as it is, as long as players break the rules, and as long as they turn their backs hoping the rules will save them, there will be head injuries. The league's list of concussion victims will continue to grow because just playing hockey in the NHL today means you're placing yourself in a vulnerable position.