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?
I don't know when it exactly happened this week. Strange isn't it, that everyone kind of woke up to the fact that hockey, and the NHL in particular, is a dangerous and extraordinarily violent sport played by men who put their lives and livelihoods in each others' hands every night?
This is a sport in which hits — the act of hitting someone else so hard that they lose control of the puck — are a thing that is considered good, and bare-knuckle fighting is more or less totally legal, and entered into by giant men with the intent of better engaging their teammates in the game's proceedings.
But somehow, only when Patrick Kaleta throws an opponent headfirst into the boards for what seems like the millionth time in his career; and Harry Zolnierczyk goes all Air Jordan on Mike Lundin while his teammate calls the hit beautiful and his coach says he did nothing wrong; and Marc Staal catches a puck in the eye because he wasn't wearing a visor; and David Dziuzynski gets straight-up KOed by Frazer McLaren, all in the space of five days or so, did everyone sit up and once and say, "Hey wait a second here!"
After Erik Karlsson had his Achilles nearly sliced in half by Matt Cooke accidentally stepping on his heel, it was amazing to see the entire league scramble to at least try out the Kevlar equipment that has long been available to them because they collectively realized that guys with knives attached to their feet could be really problematic. And then, when Staal got the puck in the eye, everyone kind of leaned back in their chairs and said that perhaps it was time to consider making visors mandatory, as though Steve Yzerman never caught one there, and Chris Pronger's career wasn't essentially ended by catching a stick in the same area.
The NHL has always been dangerous, and dangerously stupid in dealing with the issues related to player safety, and there's a lot of reasons for it.
The first is that players would rather be "comfortable" than more safe, like if NASCAR drivers came out in opposition to roll bars because they slow the cars down. That's why visors aren't omnipresent in this league, and why they'll never be mandated by the league until someone literally loses an eye on national TV (Staal was so close too!).
In furtherance of the point that players are willfully putting themselves in this position, long-time Calgary writer Bruce Dowbiggin imparted a story (here and here) about the time Craig Button famously made the Flames' equipment manager install visors on all players' helmets during training camp. Those who didn't like them were told that they would have to remove the protective gear themselves with tiny screwdrivers, and damned if a room full of grown men didn't sit at their stalls and fiddle with the damn things for a couple minutes just to get the visors out of their lives.
And speaking of the Flames, Calgary Sun writer Ian Busby notes that since he wrote a nice little feature back about a month ago about how just three guys on that team didn't wear visors (Steve Begin, Jay Bouwmeester, and Dennis Wideman) didn't wear them, two more (Mark Giordano and Tim Jackman) actually took them off.
These are the lengths to which players will go to not-protect themselves, so you'd think it would fall to the league to do what the players won't. Goalies had to start wearing masks. Players had to start wearing helmets in 1979, unless they were around before then and, like, really didn't feel like it. I wonder if there was a big old stink kicked up about those changes back then. I'm sure they did. But everyone seemed to get used to it pretty quickly, and hey a lot of guys were even wearing helmets before that; it's not like the league went from zero players wearing them to all of them doing it.
The percentage of players who wear visors is certainly up now from where it was even five years ago, but at some point you have to protect these dummies from themselves. This isn't libertarianism. You can't let the free market decide what constitutes a bad enough injury that it will scare NHLers into putting care ahead of comfort.
But just as the league is now going soft on repeat offenders like Kaleta — just five games for that hit on Brad Richards only because the victim returned to action less than two minutes later — and doesn't even think about ringing up Daniel Alfredsson for deliberately trying to crosscheck Zac Rinaldo in the face twice (even if Rinaldo might have deserved it), you can bet for sure that it's not going to start making players wear equipment that keeps them safe.
One thing that it's been noted is a potential impediment to mandatory visors is that it makes fighting harder, which is just about the dumbest reasoning I've ever heard for not protecting someone.
"Hey, if we're going to do this really stupid dangerous useless thing for 30 seconds in a game, we should at least be able to do it without visors getting in the way for the other 60 minutes," shouldn't be an argument that holds any water with anyone for any reason, but this is the NHL we're talking about.
Hell, this league doesn't even have any accountability when it comes to its own safety protocols. When I wrote a few weeks ago about how the NHL no longer has the "quiet room" protocol in place, and the league hit back that it most certainly does, what I should have said was that it is in place and largely ignored.
Go watch that Kaleta hit and the immediate aftermath.
Brad Richards leaves the ice to head to the dressing room, and less than two minutes later the MSG announce crew notes that he's returning the bench. Unless that fabled quiet room protocol got scaled back from 15 minutes off the ice at a minimum to "closer to 90 seconds or really however little time you want," the rules weren't followed by the Rangers. And while I'm sure these things are handled internally and behind closed doors, it leads one to wonder exactly what repercussions, if any, exist for such flagrant disobedience of player safety rules.
I have a guess, at any rate.
The other issue is that some players — you know exactly which ones I mean — simply have no respect for each other. The argument you often hear is that you can go back and watch highlights of Dale Hunter running guys from behind and Gordie Howe two-handing people on the wrist a dozen times a year, so obviously players never did have that respect. That's totally true, but I'm not sure how that justifies anything that, say, Zolniercyzk does today.
You can't really make these players until you threaten their careers, though, as we saw with Matt Cooke. So how do you do that? You start suspending them for longer periods of time. Scare them straight. But I know Brendan Shanahan has essentially been neutered in his role thanks to pressure for the league (Bettman reining in the 25 games for Raffi Torres last summer to just 21 being a prime example) and the NHLPA (which is never happy about suspensions for any reason even if they're the result of hits that put other NHLPA members in the hospital, because that's money out of players' pockets), and now the new appeals system that lets guys go to an independent body for anything more than five games, which is why that's exactly how many Kaleta got.
The league and PA have to, at some point, logically, rationally, step aside and let the guy who's in charge of player safety go about the business of making players safer. That means bigger suspensions. That means no fear of someone coming in and overriding the punishment already meted out. That means no union bosses raising objections because some player no one pays to see is getting suspended for putting a guy lots of people pay to see on the shelf for a few days or more (still waiting for that Brad Richards comeback, by the way).
Just the other day a player in the Swiss league was rendered quadriplegic because his opponent made no attempt whatsoever to protect him, and threw him headfirst into the boards on what we can all agree was a freak play, but a plainly disrespectful one that was never going to result in anything that wasn't at the very least ugly.
We've all seen that hit a thousand times and in 999 of them, the worst that happens is a guy gets a little shaken up and draws a five-minute boarding major and maybe a few games' worth of suspensions. But it was a lot like Kaleta on Richards, and probably just inches away from something similar happening in either direction.
A lot happens in hockey, and it happens fast more often than not, but if some guys have the cognitive functions to decide they can not bury their opponents headfirst into the boards, then it's incumbent upon all others to make sure they do the same, and for the league's disciplinarians to make sure that guys who don't learn their lesson fast and hard.
Yeah, hockey is a dangerous sport played by guys who are just a cape and a dirt bike short of being considered daredevils; and the fact that they themselves and the league which governs them both don't really have much of a demonstrable interest in protecting them is a shame.
Hopefully the next extremely preventable, catastrophic injury is the one that gets everyone to put their heads on straight.
But I doubt it will be. So don't be surprised by any of it.
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