Whether you lace up your skates to play on a Pee-Wee team, in a Sunday night beer league game or for an NHL club, all hockey players, and most fans alike, know there is an inherent danger to the game- no matter the level of competition. You play on a massive slab of ice, there are two razor-sharp blades attached to you and your competitor’s feet, you carry a 6 foot-long wooden stick and you slap a brick-hard rubber disc around at freeway speeds (and in the NHL this all takes place among players whose faces are exposed). Add to that playing in an enclosed area with 12-foot high plexiglass corralling all of the chaotic action. Needless to go on, we all understand that there is major risk in playing this sport.
When you look at the men who play at the professional level, the stereotype of a 6-foot-3, 215 pound man-beast, with loads of dental work, is not too far off from ‘average’ in the NHL. And these guys can move, skating upwards of 25-30 mph with bulky equipment on from head to toe.
Combining all of these factors with the laws of physics, it doesn’t take Neil deGrasse Tyson to conclude that there is the potential for major collisions with a high risk of bodily harm.
And adding another layer to this, physical contact and bare-knuckle fist fighting is actually encouraged. Bare-knuckle! I recently watched a documentary about Muay Thai fighting and even those guys tape up their knuckles before a barn fight on the outskirts of Bangkok.
All of this is exactly what makes hockey game the best game on earth. The speed, the physicality, the danger, the battles and the grind. The passion these guys exude and the risks they take to score goals and win games is as admirable as any role in professional sports.
But there has been an increasingly popular trend in the NHL that is taking the already massively present risk of permanent injury to the next level- head shots and dangerous hits on vulnerable players.
Blues fans can most recently relate to the trend with the deliberate target to the head of Vlad Sobotka, compliments of David Clarkson’s left shoulder, during the game against the Maple Leafs last Thursday night. The disrespectful play left Clarkson with a lengthy, two game suspension. This coming from a guy who has already been suspended for 10 games earlier this season, which means he has twice as many games missed due to suspension than points scored (2 G, 4A). All from a guy Toronto is paying $5.25 million per year.
This trend is becoming an epidemic. As of Tuesday, there have been eight suspensions already in the month of December. And even since I started writing this article, you can almost certainly chalk up two more suspensions for dangerous hits from Tuesday’s tilts. The first was delivered care of Red Wings’ Kyle Quincey, a hit from behind that left Duck’s captain Ryan Getzlaf bloodied, and the second (to become the 10th suspension of the month) was Tom Wilson of Washington’s brutal charge on Philadelphia’s Brayden Schenn, who now has to go through NHL-protocol and take the Sports Concussion Assessment Tool, which helps team doctors measure the severity of the injury sustained to the brain.
More alarmingly, since the start of the pre-season, there have been 28 suspensions of two games or more, with the majority of them coming as a result of ‘hits to the head’. Seven of the suspensions resulted in players receiving bans of 5+ games for especially violent actions.
The one suspension that has garnered the most media attention, as well as criticism, is Shawn Thornton’s 15-game suspension as a result of his slew-foot and subsequent blows to the head of Brooks Orpik, during an ugly game last week between Eastern conference heavy weights Boston and Pittsburgh. While the act was vicious and regrettable, as even Thornton admitted, it raised many questions about the widely varying length of suspensions handed down by NHL executive Brendan Shanahan and his Department of Player Safety. To be clear, Thornton has played the tough guy role in over 500 NHL games yet had never been suspended until this incident.
Without a doubt, the fact that Orpik sustained a concussion and was carted off on a stretcher created a heightened level of concern, as well as contributing to an image of the game that the NHL wants to eliminate. But when you start to compare suspensions, it doesn’t seem like a concussion, being strapped to a stretcher and visiting to the local hospital equates to a lengthy ban.
I hate to bring it up Blues fans, but Max Lapierre’s sickening hit from behind on San Jose’s Dan Boyle, which resulted in a serious concussion, gurney ride and hospital trip, earned him just a five game suspension. So why, for the same physical outcome from a play, did this result in a repeat offender getting tossed for five games while a first time offender received three times that? What’s the difference between Boyle’s concussion compared to Orpiks’?
The fact is the NHL needs to do something more to minimize brain-related injuries to their athletes. I would imagine Shanny and the guys in the Player Safety Department are aware of research going on about the seriousness of concussions and how it dramatically effects the quality of life for these guys after their playing days are over. And with a growing number of significant lawsuits brought by former professional athletes, including the recent suit brought against the NHL, who are all battling the effects of brain injuries sustained from hits like the ones mentioned above, this issue is only going to get bigger.
So how does the league minimize the brain-related injuries?
Two game suspensions? $2500 fines for millionaires?
Sarcasm aside, the league is not taking a hard enough stance on the discipline for players who are taking embarrassing, brand-diminishing liberties against their opponents.
Bettman, Shanahan and all those involved need to take a real hard look at the consistency of suspensions, and provide some incentive for these guys to cut out the plays that can be summed up with the phrase ‘complete and utter lack of respect for your peers’ well being.’
I think hockey fans and league officials should get comfortable with the thought of 25 game suspensions and $500,000 fines for these head shots and ugly hits. Do you think if Lapierre gets a wage garnishment upwards of half his annual salary he would continue on with this behavior? Or if a guy like James Neal pulls some shenanigans (say a knee to the head of Brad Marchand) in November and is ineligible to suit up until February, that he may think twice next time?
At the end of the day, I know this is a physical, hard-nose sport that rewards toughness and guys who battle night in and night out. I’m aware that there have been dirty players and ugly hits for a long time, I can remember cursing at Ulf Samuelson and Darcy Tucker through the TV in my parent’s house while watching Hockey Night in Canada.
But just like everything and everyone in this world, we need to continue to evolve and constantly question our behavior, examining how we can improve as a society and make progress towards a more sustainable existence for all. This is true even for the NHL, particularly in the way the league approaches the long-term effects of brain injury. The idea of progressive evolution is one that I know even Neil deGrasse Tyson would agree with. And he’s wicked smaht.