Saturday, March 9, 2013
You've probably never heard of Luděk Čajka. He was 26 years old when he died on Valentine's Day, 1990. Before his short life was abruptly halted, he was a talented defenceman playing for HC Zlin in the Czech senior hockey league. He stood 6'3" and weighed in at about 200lbs. The New York Rangers had drafted him, but he chose to stay at home and play his pro hockey near his family.
On January 6, 1990, Čajka was playing in a routine league game against VSŽ Košice. In the second period, Košice shot the puck the length of the ice. Čajka raced back to touch it up for icing, but opponent Anton Bartanus raced with him. The two collided behind the net and only Bartanus skated away. Čajka crumpled and lay in a boneless pile on the ice. His spine had been severed, and he lapsed into a coma. Watching the rushing trainers and doctors hurrying to Čajka's side, Bartanus turned on the bench and threw up. Čajka survived on life support in the hospital, until his family finally decided to turn off the machines on February 14.
After this heartbreaking incident, the Czech league admitted touch icing was dangerous and put players at terrible risk of injury. The league introduced the "no-touch" icing rule, which would halt play immediately after an iced puck crossed the goal line. The lesson learned by Čajka's death has likely prevented the serious injury of other players in the same situation.
In the NHL, on the other hand, the Minnesota Wild's Kurtis Foster shattered a leg on a touch icing play in 2008. Promising Edmonton Oilers defenceman Taylor Fedun missed an entire season by breaking a leg on an icing call in 2011. Last night, we saw the Habs Brandon Prust probably separate a shoulder racing back to beat an icing. The touch icing rule has claimed many victims.
In the most recent collective bargaining agreement, the NHL agreed to adopt a "hybrid" icing rule, in which the whistle blows after a long shot passes the icing dot nearest the opposition goalie. However, the league won't put that change into practice until next year. Meanwhile, the AHL, the traditional testing ground for new rules, has called off the hybrid icing experiment because too many players are getting called up to the NHL and being confused by the difference between AHL and NHL rules.
The hybrid icing rule may help prevent injuries in the future, but there's no doubt no-touch icing would be better. Sure, it's fun to watch two players race it out to beat or save an icing. The consequences, though, aren't worth it. Too many players have sacrificed a shoulder or a knee or...in one sad case...a life in order to get a lousy faceoff advantage.
The lack of urgency by the NHL in changing the icing rule is indicative of the league's lack of urgency in curbing fighting or the cheap hits that are sidelining so many players with concussions. NHL leadership needs to live by the lip-service it gives to the ideal of player safety. Brandon Prust would wish it was so after his latest game.
There's no doubt the family of Luděk Čajka would feel the same way.
Posted by J.T. at 6:04 PM