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Puck Daddy

Hockey’s attitude toward injuries remains as dumb as ever (Trending Topics)

Ryan Lambert
Puck Daddy

Trending Topics is a column that looks at the week in hockey, occasionally according to Twitter. If you're only going to comment to say how stupid Twitter is, why not just go have a good cry for the slow, sad death of your dear internet instead?

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Oh, the plaudits for Gregory Campbell after he broke his leg blocking a shot and stayed on the ice. So brave. So meritorious. Gutting out a broken fibula and even trying to poke-check the point man. It doesn't get tougher than that.

It also doesn't get stupider than that.

The question I keep asking myself about the Bruins forward's decision to stand up and skate around on a broken leg late in Wednesday night's overtime win that pushed the series to 3-0 for his team is, "Why on earth he would do that?" On the surface, the answer to that question is that to be brave, you have to necessarily be dumb. And vice versa.

Being brave intrisically involves the willingness to ignore things your body is screaming at you to not-do. "Stop skating around on a broken leg," is a thing your instincts might, very rightly, say to you if you were dumb enough to do that.

Meanwhile, being stupid involves being brave, or at least extremely tough, because you're more likely to get yourself into situations that require you to be those things; hockey players on the whole are pretty stupid, if you think about it, because they routinely throw themselves in front of frozen bits of rubber that are moving at really high speeds, so that the rubber doesn't get all the way to the guy with way more padding whose job it is to stop them.

This is not a thing normal humans do. Not that shot-blocking isn't important within the context of a hockey game, mind you, it's just a dumb thing to do from the point of view of one's physical well-being.

But that he had to be brave at all shows just how bizarre the NHL's attitudes toward player injuries are to this day, in 2013. How long was he on the ice skating around limply, slowly waving his stick at the Penguins players who happened to skate near him in what must have been a haze of endorphins and searing pain? It must have been a good 60 seconds, and that's about 60 seconds longer than a guy with a broken leg should be allowed to stand up and attempt to stop world-class athletes from doing anything.

But the game went on because the Bruins, already-shorthanded (then made doubly-so as they were by Campbell's injury), were unable to get the puck away from Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, and Kris Letang. Which I guess you might expect.

The reason the game went on is that it's right there in the rules that if a guy is hurt, play doesn't stop until his team gains control of the puck. The reason for that, in turn, is pretty obvious: If a particularly cynical knows that he's going to get a whistle every time he plays dead on the ice, then he's going to come up with a phantom ankle injury every time he's hemmed into his own zone, then skate to the bench laughing.

So I guess in the end it is brave for Campbell, or Niklas Hjalmarsson, who did the same thing (on a much less injurious shot) a night before, to stand out there and try to play through something like that.

But it also shows just how blasé the NHL is about its players picking up serious injuries in the first place.

Campbell was very clearly in a lot of distress on the ice, and if he'd stayed down, he would have been nothing more than a stationary inconvenience around which five of the more skilled players in the world would have to navigate. He wasn't much better mobile, but staying down wasn't an option. If he had been gushing blood from an altogether innocuous high stick, on the other hand, the refs would have whistled the play dead immediately and trainers would have hauled ass to get onto the ice and attend to him.

They should have been doing the same for a broken leg, because that's far worse — and potentially career-threatening — than, say, losing a few chicklets because you took a blade in the face and started bleeding. Both are serious, the former moreso, and thus it's curious that the NHL deals with them using responses inversely proportional to their gravity.

Of course, the league and its players are also loath to change anything about player safety unless circumstances really really really reeeeaaaaaallllllly dictate it, and things get actually scary for star players. I've written before about how guys got serious cuts on their legs from skates all the time, but no one thought to adopt Kevlar socks en masse until Erik Karlsson suffered that injury from which he ended up rushing back.

Likewise, there was a never a chance that mandatory visors would be grandfathered into the league, as they finally were this week, without a player of Marc Staal's caliber and stature catching a puck in the eye and literally never having his vision being 100 percent normal for the rest of his life. That the measure was not adopted unanimously by the players is kind of surprising, but I guess they really make it tough to see the puck and therefore anyone who would play without this basic protective measure was probably scared of getting hit in the eye with a puck like a cowardly little baby.

Even after the measure was passed with fairly overwhelming support, people who were against the change made the same argument they always have: That instituting it didn't stop all facial injuries. As though that were some kind of reasonable argument in the first place. To take it to its logical extreme, one imagines these same people would caution those whose jobs might entail being shot at on occasion to not wear bulletproof vests because they won't prevent them getting their brains blown out if they're shot in the head.

And just to prove how little players and league alike think of the safety of those actually getting paid lots of money to play this sport for our enjoyment (and the owners' profit), the idea of hybrid icing was voted into the "maybe" pile. The reason, ostensibly, is that it opens things up to too much subjectivity on the part of linesmen.

The argument against automatic icing, used in international competition and overseas, is that it slows the game down, so that's always going to be unacceptable to the NHL. But the argument against hybrid is much dumber: Calls won't be made correctly a few times out of every 100 icings. This is curious, too, because you'd think one replay of the Kurtis Foster broken ankle play shown to every voter when they filled out their ballot would have changed minds pretty quickly.

Personally, I'd rather have a million blown calls on races to the faceoff dots than see one guy almost have his career ended in just such a manner, but I guess I'm not old-fashioned enough.

No one, it seems, cares very much about the subjectivity in normal icing, where linesmen get calls wrong because they think guys touched pucks in the neutral zone, or that the puck-carrier gained the line, or that a defenseman could have gotten there, or that a forward touched it first. It also doesn't seem to be of much concern that offside calls are blown on the regular, and they sometimes lead to goals, but not serious injuries. What, in the end, is more important? We apparently know the answer. It's goals.

I don't know what it is in hockey's DNA that makes this kind of thing — both the infrastructure that led Campbell to play that way, and that he did it at all — praiseworthy, rather than brow-furrowing. Well, I do. It's the macho ideal that guys aren't supposed to act as though being hurt hurts. You gotta gut it out. It doesn't matter if you're worried about a pick or a stick or a skate taking out one of your eyes permanently. Or if you don't want to see guys get tangled up and crash scarily into the boards trying to leg out an icing call. Or if a broken leg has ended several professional athletes' careers.

What's the rest of a 29-year-old non-superstar's career versus the so-called glory of 60 seconds of ineffectual standing around on a broken fibula?

That kind of stuff shouldn't make you a legend. It should make you another sad case in a sport that pushes participants to the edge of reason. But that's not how it is. Hockey is for tough guys only.

If you’ve got something for Trending Topics, holla at Lambert on Twitter or via e-mail. He’ll even credit you so you get a thousand followers in one day and you’ll become the most popular person on the Internet! You can also visit his blog if you’re so inclined.

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