In the last two years, ten members of Canada's national alpine ski team have sustained serious injuries, ranging from concussion to torn knee ligaments and broken legs. While it's not uncommon for skiers to fall and hurt themselves, sometimes seriously, the number of bad injuries at the highest level is becoming frightening to those who govern the sport.
Official reports say 42% of all World Cup skiers sustained an injury in 2009, with 23% forcing the athletes off the slopes for more than a week. Skiers and organizers together have come to the conclusion that the sport has become too fast for the human body, even in its best-trained condition, to sustain. Advances in equipment to make it less wind-resistant and more aerodynamic, better training techiques for skiers, cutting-edge skis and slopes doctored to make them icier and faster have all combined to make downhill skiing too dangerous for the best athletes in the world.
The same thing is happening in hockey. The rise in the number of serious injuries like concussion and knee ligament tears is becoming alarming. Since the lockout, which changed the rules to limit obstruction and speed up the game, the rate of concussions has risen from about 75 per year to more than 90. The NHL's concussion expert, Dr.Ruben Echemendia, says there are likely a couple of reasons for the increase.
"It could be that we are making inroads in terms of our ability to communicate to players that they need to report their symptoms, that this is a serious injury and there's increased awareness and identification of the injury," Echemendia says. "It could also be that more concussions are being caused because players are bigger, faster."
Echemendia cites the speed of collisions between players as a possible contributor to the severity of concussions as well as the occurrence of them.
It's not just concussions, either. Many young, important players are getting sidelined with serious knee injuries as well. Zach Parise missed an entire season. So did Andrei Markov. Evgeni Malkin missed half a year. Chris Drury, Chris Campoli, Josh Gorges, Jordan Hendry, Rob Niedermayer, Josh Harding and Brendan Morrison all went under the knife this season. That's more than one in ten NHLers with serious knee injuries this year alone. Look at the Canadiens roster and you'll see James Wisniewski and Jeff Halpern, both of whom had serious ligament damage and long recoveries.
Then there are the number of players breaking bones; hands, feet and legs, blocking shots. The game is demanding a greater commitment to team defence now, which means everyone's got to block shots. However, composite sticks and stronger players are launching the puck at faster speeds than ever before. That speed is hurting players.
Faced with the realization that the speed of their sport was hurting athletes, Alpine Canada announced this week it's making concrete changes to slow things down. It called a two-day safety summit involving coaches, doctors, athletes and equipment designers. After the discussion, all parties agreed to recommend changing the layout of courses to reduce speed, raising the minimum age for downhillers to 18, adding more padding to suits to create more drag and slow them down and banning the injection of water to courses to make them icier and faster. Experts are also recommending the use of back braces and mouth guards, as well as better helmets, to reduce injuries.
The Alpine Canada recommendations won't just sit on the shelf and collect dust. The FIS, the international governing body for alpine skiing is onside and is committed to reducing injuries caused by excessive speed as well.
That's what skiing is doing to fix a problem plaguing its young athletes. It's time for hockey to do the same thing. The speed of the game has surpassed the ability of the players' bodies to absorb it safely. Whether it's sacrificing revenue to remove seats and expand the ice surface or reducing the number of players dressed for a game in order to force them to conserve speed, something's got to give. Composite sticks must be reconsidered because they're driving the puck too hard. If skiing can do it, so can hockey. It will soon have no choice because all the concussion protocols in the world don't address the fact that a lot of these injuries are happening because the game has become too fast for players to handle.