The NHL and the NFL have a common problem, and unfortunately for the NHL, it isn’t how to count billions of dollars in TV revenue. It’s concussions, the collisions that cause those concussions and the culture that causes those collisions.
Something has to change, and though both leagues are taking bold new steps to effect that change, we’re seeing resistance. NFL players loudly decried the crackdown their league began making this week, saying the sport is going soft by threatening suspensions for illegal hits, with Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison even threatening to retire if he can’t play the way he was trained to play. NHL players haven’t been as vocal about their league’s new head-shot rule, but they might be just as stubborn.
Take Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson(notes). He received a two-game suspension for a concussion-causing hit from behind on Buffalo Sabres winger Jason Pominville(notes). Hjalmarsson has played three games since serving his suspension. Has he changed the way he plays?
“No,” Hjalmarsson said. “Not me personally. I don’t think you can skate around out there and be scared of getting suspended. You’ve got to play your game.”
Better training is making athletes bigger and faster. So if force equals mass times acceleration, this is the cold calculus: bigger, faster athletes produce more forceful hits. At the same time, more advanced science is giving us more detailed information about just how bad concussions can be.
The NHL has a unique dilemma because the game has gotten faster beyond the growth of the players. Rule changes instituted after the 2004-05 lockout have eliminated the clutching, grabbing and overall interference that used to slow down the pace. The product has never been better, but one byproduct is getting worse.
“The speed of the game is the reason why we’re seeing injuries,” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. “But I think we like the speed of the game, because it creates so much excitement and unpredictability. I think hits, you don’t see as much hitting, but the ones you do see sometimes can be a little more excessive than they used to be.”
Concussions always will be an occupational hazard in hockey as in football. You can’t strap on metal blades and fly down a hard sheet of ice, surrounded by boards and glass and opponents, and not understand the risk.
“I think it’s always going to be unlucky hits out there,” Hjalmarsson said. “It’s going to be tough to change. It’s such a fast sport, so it’s tough to make those decisions in a split-second. And sometimes it may look bad out there even though the intention is not bad at all.”
Hjalmarsson considered his hit on Pominville among the unlucky variety, and Quenneville supported him, pointing out players have some responsibility to put themselves in position to protect themselves – and that Hjalmarsson was doing what he was supposed to do. “If you coach that situation, (Hjalmarsson) going into the puck carrier like that, that’s probably how you want him to do it,” Quenneville said.
There is truth to that. Just as there was truth to what Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan(notes) said after he was suspended for three games, saying he hit Anaheim Ducks winger Dan Sexton’s(notes) hands, not his head. (Sexton’s stick is what hit his head, and he was not injured.) But there is a reason the NHL saw both incidents differently, and there is a reason why the players were suspended. There are the specifics of each incident. Then there is the big picture, the culture.
The issue was debated at the World Hockey Summit in August in Toronto. It was debated again at a hockey concussion summit this week at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. At both events, there were good data, good debates and good intentions. But on the ice, the solution needs to be practical and realistic.
Equipment is a catch-22. The more it protects, the more it makes players feel invincible. Fines take money out of a player’s pocket. But suspensions take money out of a player’s pocket and the player out of the lineup, affecting the player plus his teammates, his coach and everyone else connected to the organization.
Suspensions aren’t perfect, but they’re the most effective tool. It has to get to the point where it is clearly in everyone’s interest to do everything possible to avoid even the unlucky hits.
When the NHL instituted its post-lockout rules in 2005-06, there was a long line to the penalty box and a lot of grumbling. But eventually, everyone accepted the new reality and adjusted. Now that the NHL has instituted its new head-shot rule this season, there already have been fines and suspensions and grumbling. But if the league stays with it, eventually everyone should accept this new reality and adjust.
Violence is an undeniable part of what has made football the most popular sport in North America. It is also an undeniable part of the appeal of hockey. But we don’t have to take out all the violence. We have to take out the worst type of violence, the kind that causes brain injuries, not to mention other serious injuries.
Just as football players have to get back to leading with their hands and arms, wrapping up tackles with old-school fundamentals instead of going for the kill shot, hockey players have to learn to stay low, stay in sight and hit appropriately. Concussions can’t be eliminated, but they can be reduced. It will take time, but it can happen.
The Carolina Hurricanes knew their October schedule would be brutal – “really brutal,” according to former ’Canes captain Rod Brind’Amour(notes), who is now in player development. General manager Jim Rutherford called it the “ultimate test.”
After an exhibition game in St. Petersburg, Russia, and back-to-back season-opening games in Helsinki, Finland, the Hurricanes didn’t get to come home to play, thanks to the North Carolina State Fair being in full swing within the vicinity of RBC Center. Rather, they had to go to Ottawa, Vancouver, San Jose and Los Angeles. They still have to visit Phoenix on Saturday night.
Their home opener isn’t until Wednesday night – six days later than anyone else’s. And their opponent? The Washington Capitals, winners of the Presidents’ Trophy for the NHL’s best regular-season record in 2009-10. After yet another road game – against the New York Rangers – they come home to finish the month against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the 2009 Stanley Cup champions.
“That’s OK,” Rutherford said. “We have to play those teams. We’re in the same league.”
Yeah, but they don’t have to play those teams in this order.
None of the other teams that opened the season in Europe had to endure this unwelcome of a homecoming. The Minnesota Wild flew back from Finland and played three consecutive home games. The San Jose Sharks returned from the Czech Republic and played back-to-back home games. The Columbus Blue Jackets came back from the Czech Republic with nine of their next 13 at home.
The Hurricanes have done a decent job on their test so far. After the exhibition tilt against SKA St. Petersburg that the Russians treated like the Summit Series – captain Eric Staal(notes) didn’t play the third period to avoid further cheap shots – the ’Canes beat the Wild back-to-back in Helsinki. They lost at Ottawa and Vancouver, and defenseman Joe Corvo(notes) couldn’t help but complain about the trip. But then they won at San Jose on Tuesday night, 5-2, and narrowly lost at Los Angeles the next night, 4-3. Win at Phoenix, and they could finish their trek above .500.
That would be quite an accomplishment, and quite a help. Yes, the schedule will even out, but it doesn’t until the end of the season. The Hurricanes finish with 16 of their last 24 at home. Even a young team with young legs needs to have something left – in terms of energy and hope.
So many experts anointed the Los Angeles Kings’ Drew Doughty(notes) as the favorite to win the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman this season, it’s not only easy for forget that Doughty is only 20 years old, it’s easy to forget about Duncan Keith(notes) – you know, the guy that won the Norris last season.
Why can’t Keith win it again? He has been as valuable as ever to the Blackhawks so far, even if he had only two assists and an even rating. With Hjalmarsson serving that two-game suspension and Brian Campbell(notes) injured, half of Chicago's top-four has been missing at times. Keith, always an ice hog, has logged more than 30 minutes in six of eight games.
“I think it’s crazy,” said Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews(notes). “Sometimes I’m out there starting a shift with him. I go off, get a break and come back out, and he’s pretty much still on the ice. So I don’t know how he does it. Obviously he’s a good athlete and he doesn’t get tired easily, that’s for sure.”
Quenneville doesn’t want to keep this up, though.
“His minutes are a little higher than we’d like right now,” Quenneville said. “But he wants to play, and he can play. He can handle minutes, and absorbs them well.”
NHL discipline czar Colin Campbell often is criticized for inconsistency in how he hands out fines and suspensions. But hockey has too many moving parts for him to have a concrete standard. He has to take into context the kinetics of each play and the history of each player. And while he should strive to be as consistent as possible, as we all should acknowledge he does, isn’t inconsistency actually a deterrent, too? If you don’t know what you might get if you slam somebody, maybe you better think twice before you even attempt it. Even a borderline hit isn’t worth the risk.
*Only 9,802 fans showed up for the Blue Jackets’ 3-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday in Columbus. That’s less than 10 percent of the attendance for the last Ohio State football home game: 105,291.
*Even worse, only 8,820 fans showed up for the Thrashers’ 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on the same night in Atlanta.
*What should Vancouver Canucks forward Rick Rypien(notes) say to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman about Tuesday night, when he grabbed a clapping Minnesota Wild fan on his way off the ice after a fight? Not much more than this: “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.” Don’t make it worse by making excuses.
*By all accounts, Rypien is not a bad guy. He just did a bad thing. Not sure whether his fourth-line status makes it easier for the league to make an example for him or easier for the league to cut him a bit of a break.
*Blackhawks defenseman John Scott(notes), formerly of the Minnesota Wild, said this about the Rypien incident and the fans at Xcel Energy Center: “The fans are really intense. They were happy, except the one that got beat up.”