When the NHL’s general managers meet this week in Toronto, they’ll engage in a discussion of what works and what needs fixing. Which is to say, a discussion of what you can fix and what might just be engrained, systemic problems in this gloriously violent sport of ours.
Some of it will focus on the boards surrounding the ice: Points of impact that can severely injure a player, in a broken bones or paralysis way, depending on the force being delivered by an opponent or the awkward way that player crashes into them.
Icing plays, for example, have always been at the forefront of “preventable” problems. That’s why modified icing was tested at the NHL’s Research and Development Camp in the last few years, and why hybrid icing was tested in the American Hockey League this season.
From the New York Times, we learn that icing will be on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting:
The American Hockey League tried hybrid icing for 564 games during the lockout, calling it “positive.”
The dangers of high-speed chases to the end of the rink were recently highlighted by a horrific accident in the Swiss B League that left a 33-year-old defenseman, Ronny Keller, paralyzed. It was not an icing chase, but it resembled one, as Keller and a pursuing forward raced after a puck from red line to goal line and collided, sending Keller hurtling headfirst into the corner boards.
“I formed my opinion before that injury to the Swiss player — I’ve seen enough injuries related to the race for the puck,” [Carolina GM Jim] Rutherford said. “I like the hybrid icing, and I’d suppose we’ll be talking about it at the meeting.”
Is there enough traction for that rule to pass? Tough to say. These things seem to ebb and flow in popularity depending on when, and how gruesome, the latest injury was. All due respect to Keller, but he doesn’t play in the NHL, and that’s where the attention of the GMs and the Board of Governors is focused.
While icing injuries could be preventable, something else along the board may not be: Embellishment to gain boarding calls.
On Hockey Night In Canada, Glenn Healy offered the following take on embellishment:
Kevin Weekes dropping the European football comparison to NHL divers. Yowch.
Players turning their numbers to draw calls is, at this point, an epidemic.
Of course, it’s also the NHL’s own doing: When you fortify your rulebook and deputize your officials to target hits from behind, then players are going to do whatever it takes to draw penalties for hits from behind.
It’s the same reason why a total ban on contact with the head would never work – players would skate with their heads down more than Lindros did to draw calls. You’d see more shoe-gazing in the NHL than at a My Bloody Valentine concert.
The problem is that outside of referees determining, in a millisecond, the intent of the player being hit, there’s no eradicating embellishment along the boards, is there?
Do you dial back the rules on boarding? Sure, if you’re someone that’s keen on the NHL getting sued by crippled ex-players for putting them at greater risk by making the game less safe.
Do you adopt nonsense like the Brian Burke Bear Hug rule, in which player safety concerns usher in an era of legalized holding and obstruction in the offensive zone? Of course not. Because that’s always been a stupid solution to a practically unsolvable problem.
Embellishment is a tactic, whether it’s drawing a call in the slot or the neutral zone or along the boards. Yes, in a pristine world of sportsmanship and integrity, no one would dive or take advantage of the rules. Alas, the NHL is not, nor has ever been, that world.
So the GMs will talk about it, mull it over, demonize it to the media … and then do nothing about the embellishment each of their teams engage in.
Short of the NHL retroactively fining players for embellishment – like when you get a speeding ticket via a robotic camera on I-95 – it’s one of hockey’s engrained, systemic problems.