Friday, May 6, 2011

The Need For Speed

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.


Woodvid said...

Once more, you've put into words what I think many of us have been getting inklings of.

I'm sure things have gotten worse post-lockout. I remember one of the first years afterwards, a friend and I were amazed at the number of Flyers in the clinic after they were eliminated (2005ish). And not just for concussions.

Now that scenario is becoming common-place. Look at the Capitals -- Ovechkin, Green, and Carlson (and probably others) were all playing (or not playing at all) hurt. Of course, Ovechkin is now heading off to the world championships, which puzzles me, but anyway...

Another friend of mine and I were recently discussing the need to reduce speed. He agreed, but mentioned he had been watching some hockey footage from the 70s and found it "boring."

I'm afraid too many people would agree with that and use that as a reason not to make any changes.

But I would counter that argument with this: basketball has a limited number of players and shift-changes, is not always full-speed like hockey, and it is certainly not wanting for an audience. If anything, when a fast-break or pickoff occurs, it's even more exciting.

I'll stop rambling now. :-)

Kyle Roussel said...

Brilliant stuff as always! Now, do we really expect the NHL to follow suit? They seem to think that their player are expendable nowadays. GMs bury their heads in the rear-end of the "we can't take the physicality of the game away" excuse.

Anyway, this is another example of a sport taking athlete safety seriously. In a world that demands "bigger, faster, more xtreme!", it's refreshing to see a sport take a step back and recognize where its headed.

I read a report not long ago that the human body has evolved to its furthest point, and that strength training & nutrition have peaked. There's nowhere else for the human body to go without the aid of chemistry & other outside intervention.

This leaves nothing but tweaks to rules, equipment and environment to enhance the game. It seems the NHL hasn't realized that they may have already passed through the "happy medium" of exciting, fast hockey and emerged on the recklessly dangerous side of the spectrum.

I don't know if there's no turning back, but they at least need to give the impression that they care, and right now they don't. I see a whole lot of lip service, and not much else.

Anvilcloud said...

I have also had the thought that returning to a three line (and maybe a 5 D) game might be part of the solution. The other guys could sit on the bench to be used in case of an injury, but once one of them comes in, the replaced guy is out for the rest of the game. I guess that's what soccer does although I didn't begin with that in mind.

DB said...

To me the call to reduce the speed of the NHL is premature. More and better research is needed to establish how much of a factor are speed, size, boards, equipment, ice conditions, and positioning in causing injuries.

Computer models of all injuries, like those done by an Ottawa Prof to explain why Crosby's concussion was worse than MacPax's, should become standard.

In essence the NHL would start to do what car companies have been doing for years to improve crash worthiness - use models to calculate the forces involved in collisions to better understand what is going on. Potential solutions can then be modelled to see what impact they might have on injuries.

I would like the NHL to appoint a Chief Safety Officer, someone with a bio-medical engineering background, to oversee the development of the computer models and the analysis of the results.

Afterall you need good information to make good decisions.

J.T. said...

Thanks to all for your observations.

@DB: I think that's a great idea. I'd love to see more solid proof about what happens to a body hit by various forces at speed, and how increasing speed can increase damage. It seems fairly know if you hit a guardrail at 40, you'll probably dent it, but if you hit it at 120, you're probably going through it. But it'd be great to have that information documented.

Woodvid said...

Here's the research DB was talking about. Interesting.

DB said...

My issue with the speed debate is not about whether going faster results in harder hits; it does. It's about when the player develops the force that causes injuries.

Many people say that injuries happen because the players are skating faster. I buy this to some extent, but feel the impact of explosive hits, where a player uses his core muscles at the last second to drive upward into his opponent, must be explored.

Players spend a lot of time working on their core muscles and on being able to release that strength quickly. Combine this with the upward hitting technique and injuries are bound to happen.

Modelling would measure the speed and forces of a player as he approaches his opponent and how these change as he explodes into his target. This would help in deciding if the game should be slowed down or if certain hits should be penalized.

Modelling would also force the NHL to abandon some if its silly assumptions about what a dangerous hit is. For example, the NHL believes a hit is harder (hence a penalty) if a player jumps before he delivers a hit.

While dramatic, a player actually slows down once he leaves the ice thus lessening the impact of the hit. That's why boxers never jump before throwing a punch.

Until the NHL understands this and the actual forces involved in collissions then I doubt they will make the right decisions to reduce injuries.

Anonymous said...

Bobby Orr left hockey after really nine pro seasons and a few games over the last three. I think he had over 10 knee operations. He wasn't part of the bigger and fatter NHL.

Equipment is harder and more of it. Goaltenders are trained. Penalties are lighter. Players try and draw penalties because specialty teams are more important. Games turn on one powerplay.

In my opinion the NHL pays lip service to safety. The refs are human and blow calls every game. The Burrows rule is applied daily (embarass the refs and your team and you will pay for it). The thing that policed the NHL was the Ferguson type player. The instigator rule removed that policing and made it all "suit" discipline.

Cooke, the Crosby hits, Chara on MaxPac, they would all have been handled one time. Players would be taught respect for each other, and that is what folks mean about Subban.

Rules don't protect elite athletes. Only the athletes can. Letting suits handle it is wrong. Sweaters should.

Suits are they guys who won't be able to replace the outmoded glass and boards until next season, or want to define "intent". They are the guys who protect market shares and returns on investment. Leave them to what they do. Leave play to the people who know it best, the guys who make a living doing it.