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?
Hockey is one hell of a dangerous sport.
You have giant men moving really quickly around on rock-hard ice with little knives on their feet and weapons in their hand, surrounded by hard glass and even harder boards. While they do that, other huge guys, also with knived feet and sticks with blades on them are trying to knock them into the ice and the boards and the glass, also at high speeds, as hard as they possibly can.
Sometimes, those other huge guys also punch the first huge guys in the face. Wow. That's really dangerous, and it doesn't even count when accidents happen, as they so often do.
The latest of these incidents was Matt Cooke stepping on Erik Karlsson's Achilles tendon a little more than a week ago, putting the defending Norris Trophy winner on the shelf for the season and sparking an absurd amount of outrage because Cooke clearly obviously plainly meant to do it.
But another thing it sparked: Everyone noting how this particularly gruesome injury was also particularly avoidable, had Karlsson just been wearing a pair of kevlar socks. If he had been, his Achilles tendon might still have gotten a bit nicked up — that's what happens when a 200-pound man accidentally steps on your ankle with a knife strapped to his foot — but he sure as hell wouldn't be done for the season and facing a tough rehab.
As a consequence of the hockey world all of a sudden realizing there's an easy way to prevent this kind of injury from happening — namely, picking up a phone and ordering some socks from the company that makes them and then putting them on when you play hockey — it seems the entire NHL is now trying the socks out. And we've had to suffer through the requisite trend-pieces about these players marveling at how much these socks will help keep them off the long-term injured reserve as though this should come as news to anyone. I wonder if, when the NHL made helmets mandatory for 1979-80, guys like Mike Bossy sat around telling reporters, "Jeepers, this big thing of plastic and foam on my head really makes my head feel safe!"
The Detroit Red Wings, for example, now have more than a few players adopting them, and also wearing kevlar shirts. George McPhee dropped off a whole crate of them at a Capitals' practice. Most of the Anaheim Ducks were already on board, but the few holdouts are making the switch as well. Since Karlsson got hurt, 10 more Predators have also started wearing them. Yesterday, the Jets' Zach Redmond got a cut on the back of his leg just above where the kevlar socks he wears ended, which is a tough break.
"[T]here's no real point in not wearing them," Ryan Getzlaf told the Orange County Register.
And yet, it took a superstar player having an Achilles tendon nearly severed for everyone to say, "Wow, hey, maybe we should start wearing these things that could save our asses big-time if the unexpected happens!" I'll never understand it, I guess.
We saw the same thing a few years back when Sidney Crosby got the first of his concussions. That type of head injury was always a problem in the league, as it is for any contact sport, and often many non-contact sports as well. But while it was always a problem, it wasn't officially A Problem until the world's greatest player suffered one on national television on what was clearly another accidental play in which David Steckel ran into him while both were looking the other way.
Then the NHL hauled ass to start up all those concussion protocols and install more protective rules that it still uses today to what is obviously varying degrees. But the thing is, there were 81 players who missed time with head injuries/concussions/headaches in the 2010-11 season, resulting in 1,258 man-games being lost to injury, and that's not including evasive phrasing like "illness" or "upper body injury."
The NHL, in short, only sat up and took notice of the concussion epidemic because it was forced to do so, when Sidney Crosby got his brains scrambled by Steckel and then Victor Hedman a few days later. Then came the wave of equipment makers trying to design helmets that provided more protection for players' heads.
All of that's good and helpful, but all of it seems a little like closing the barn door then locking it then barricading it about a week after the horses sprinted out of the barn because it was on fire.
The reason we so often hear for players not adopting newer, safer equipment is that they're not comfortable playing with it. Physically comfortable, mentally comfortable, whatever. That's easy enough to understand, to a point. These are the elitist of the elite athletes in their sport on the planet, and if they need their gloves or skates or pads to feel an exact certain way on the ice, then they're going to do whatever they can to do that. But there's a difference between making sure your stick is taped up just-so, and doing something that can potentially prevent you from picking up a season-ending injury, or worse.
The number of guys who have yet to adopt visors in this league, where sticks and skates and pucks and shoulder pads and helmets and fists can hit them square in the eye at any second, is frankly baffling. Again, these are guys that likely never played with visors — for the most part, there can't be too many kids under the age of, say, 25 who aren't rocking them at this point — but do they really have to wait around for an errant stick to cause catastrophic injury to the eye of Ryan Suter (or whoever) before they go "Well heck I better start wearing a visor before that happens to me!"
And it's not like guys haven't had their eyesight permanently damaged during play because they weren't wearing visors. In 1998, a player for the AHL's Lowell Lock Monsters caught a skate blade in the eye and is now blind in it. And yet the AHL didn't adopt its mandatory-visor rule until 2006-07, eight years later. How was that not enough of a cautionary tale?
You can't protect everyone from everything. Unless everyone is required to start wearing kevlar turtlenecks (which would be a very cool and trendy look!), there will still probably be incidents like what happened to Richard Zednik and Clint Malarchuk. It is, to some extent, unavoidable.
But why wouldn't you take every single precaution possible out there, at least if it's within reason?
No one expects NHLers to wear full cages out there so they can block shots with their faces with relative impunity, but protecting yourself seems like a really simple and not-all-that-difficult thing to do.
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- Erik Karlsson