As a Montreal Canadiens fan, to see the images of one of our brightest young stars immobile on the ice was scary. Max Pacioretty lay on the ice last Tuesday night, after a punishing hit was delivered by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. While I am convinced that Chara only wanted to put Pacioretty into the boards, he interfered with the Habs’ forward, who beat him cleanly to the outside.
I had the same type of sickening feeling when players like Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya were laid out by clean hits years ago by New Jersey Devils d-man, Scott Stevens. When it comes to contact with the head, who is responsible for the protection of our beloved players?
Part of the responsibility, of course, belongs to the talking heads in the NHL head offices. By and large, they have a double standard when it comes to levying discipline for these types of hits, whether they are deemed dirty of not. Part of it is their absolute refusal to punish their more skilled players. While Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin is the exception to the rule, most of the league’s all-stars are allowed to continue to play scott free. It’s time the NHL stopped playing favorites, and started punishing players for what they may do on the ice, regardless of the name that shows up on the back of their jerseys.
In saying this, on many occasions, the league doesn’t levy a suspension or any supplemental discipline based on players not being “repeat offenders.” It’s a really popular excuse for league disciplinarian Colin Campbell. While in some cases it holds merit, all players have to start somewhere. Does anyone really remember the first time Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins tried to dismember someone? And if think about it hypothetically, when former Islander forward Chris Simon tried to stomp on Jarko Ruutu’s foot with his skate a few years ago, if he was a first timer, would he have gotten nothing? We can never know. In our minds, the act was reprehensable to all of us, but if it was his first time doing something like that, who’s to tell?
Coaches also play a big role in the concussion problem. As a coach myself, I can be honest in saying I’ve wanted my share of players to be creamed after scoring against my team, or doing something vicious to one of my players. But have I ever sent someone out deliberately to hurt another player? Hockey is an emotionally charged game, because of its speed and physicality. I must be honest and say YES, I have. While it pains me to say this, because I’m not a barbaric individual, emotions often take control of our thinking when behind the bench. NHL coaches are no different. It is their responsibility, as well as it is for all coaches, to maintain a measure of control of their players, regardless of the situation.
Players themselves can also assume of major part in the current problem facing the NHL. While it is certain that the majority of concussion are due to the sometime violent impact of a clean body check, many times it is because of a flawed bodychecking technique. More often than not, a player’s follow through on a hit is when contact with the head is made. On other occasions, as was the case in the aforementioned Stevens’ incidents, players skated with the puck on their sticks, and their heads DOWN. When looking at other delivered in recent years, especially by Philadelphia’s Mike Richards on Florida’s David Booth, they contact to the head is made when following through on a hit to an unsuspecting player. While the evaluation of the hit is in my opinion only, regardless of the sport, when someone tries to pass you, you attempt to reach out and slow them down. Recognition of these flaws would be a major step in reducing this incredible epidemic.
The majority of the blame, however, must be laid on the equipment manufacturers themselves. With the use of lighter, harder, more cost-effective materials, the rise in concussions can certainly be blamed on them. Given the advances in equipment and other technologies, they can most certainly try something different. Years ago, elbow protectors were simply made with foam. Now, they have a hard protective plastic shell on the point of the elbow. The foam inside a hockey helmet has almost no give to it, so when impact is made, a player’s head remains rigid. Shoulder pads used to have a small protective piece on the rotator cuff, while now, they look more like something a football player would wear. Wouldn’t the use of technology like memory foam be more appropriate?
I can’t say if the NHL has looked into all these different factors when assessing the concussion issue, but if someone like myself can do it, why can they? If we want to continue to grow the sport we all know and love, they owe it to themselves, their players and the fans, to take all these factors into account, and do what they must.