December 28, 2011
Despite all the braying masses declaring the NHL has done "nothing" to attempt to curb concussions, the League has made three significant rules changes in the last two years with protecting the noggin as the focus: Rule 48 against blindside hits, and then the increased scope of both Rule 48 and boarding penalties. Factor the new blood in, and clear mandate of, the Department of Player Safety, and the NHL has been downright proactive.
But with an all-star team currently out of action due to concussions, the protests remain loud and consistent that the NHL must do more.
Calls to end fighting are more political and image-driven than relevant to the current debate; yes, we're all concerned about CTE and how fighters' brains are affected by a career of punches taken, but fighting isn't the reason why Sidney Crosby, Jeff Skinner, Simon Gagne, Shea Weber and the majority of their peers are currently concussed. Adding fighting to the current player safety debate is like when a senator attaches an amendment on defense spending to a payroll tax bill.
Of course, fighting is seen as entertainment by fans and by the NHL. So are long stretch passes for breakaways. So are races for the puck on an icing call. So is the general speed of the current product, and the big hits that result from it.
The next concussion-related rules change for the NHL, demanded by those who feel this is an epidemic, will mean a fundamental change to the current product. And it's a product that's made a lot of people, places and teams quite wealthy since the lockout, so you can understand the hesitation.
Icing will be one issue. No-touch icing in a non-starter. Hybrid icing has its champions, but the current incarnation being tested involves judgment "guesses" by officials that make us a little uneasy about the whole thing, even if it would cut down on end boards catastrophe.
Boarding will be another issue. Pierre McGuire voiced his support of Brian Burke's "hug rule" on VERSUS last night, in which a player can bear hug an opponent and ride him into the boards. Again, the point at which this goes from a delicate way to take a player out of the play vs. legalized holding is a Pandora's Box, with fans counting seconds on a slo-mo replay until the hug is released. It's a non-starter for us.
The main focus, we imagine, is going to be the "re-installation" of the redline and outlawing two-lines passes again. Eric Lindros, whose experience with head trauma has made him the de facto spokesperson for its prevention in the NHL, frequently advocates for the game to be slowed down. From the Kingston Whig-Standard this week:
"The game's has gotten too fast," he said outside the Frontenacs dressing room after his one-hour morning session.
That speed comes at a price for the players' safety, he said. "The red line is out and the game's quicker. It's inevitable there's going to be more (concussions). They knew that when they took the red line out. So they sacrificed that for speed."
"They knew that" is a hell of an accusation, inferring intentional negligence on the part of the NHL; that it knew dozens of star players would suffer catastrophic injuries but didn't given a damn for the sake of a more fluid product. (Does "they" cover the NHLPA as well? Didn't they have a say in the rules changes?)
Opinions have changed about the legalized two-line pass. Bobby Clarke said in 1997 that "the refs have to call obstruction. … Forechecking used to be a big part of the game, but now the first guy can't get in." Today, Bobby Clarke says:
"When the lockout was over, the red line came out and the things the players could do — if you saw someone coming you could hold him up, make him break his stride, that was all taken out of the game,'' Clarke said.
So what you had was something akin to pond hockey abandon, only with boards and glass to mitigate that feeling of open ice.
"Now you have players of this size, plowing into each other, they can't protect themselves,'' Clarke said. "They can't protect their teammates ... you just have to take it. "When the red line came out, it sounded like a great idea. It was supposed to end the trap, but it didn't. Players are on top of each other so fast. Some of these concussions happen at the red line. You can't have players skating all over the place, running into each other with no resistance.''
It's here that Clarke and others make a salient point: How many concussions occur because of speed created through the neutral zone? How many dangerous hits happen off long suicide passes, which put unsuspecting players at risk?
The red line debate has trickled down to other levels. Fort Wayne Komets President Michael Franke, of the CHL, favors putting the red line back as well:
"When the red line was eliminated several years ago, they wanted to create more scoring,'' Franke said. "There may be a little bit more, but statistics are showing that scoring is up minimally. The repercussions of the red line being out and now two-line passes is the fact that these players are flying through the neutral zone and into the attacking zone. They don't have to worry about being offside on a two-line pass any more.
"And you have these 220-, 225-pound bodies that are flying into the offensive zone or in the neutral zone, and in my opinion this is why we are getting the concussions. The speed is so great and the body mass is so great that there's no way you can't sit here and think injuries are not going to occur. These are like Mack trucks running into each other.''
The "red line" debate is inseparable from the obstruction debate, and both are inseparable from the basic question facing the NHL: How much entertainment value are you willing to sacrifice from what's considered the best hockey the League's seen in decades for the sake of player safety?
How much more complicated does that debate become when so many marquee players are injured, and the very style of hockey they're playing is getting the blame?