Every so often, the National Hockey League is condemned by one group or another for its inherent violence and negligence on preventing head injuries.
The NHL is a handy object of derision for those looking to forward their agendas, usually the target of opportunistic medical practitioners who undercut their salient points with ill-conceived hyperbole.
Opportunistic medical practitioners like Dr. Pierre Harvey, a physician from Riviere-du-Loup, Que.
At a Canadian Medical Association meeting in Calgary on Wednesday, via the Canadian Press, Harvey made a motion that was supported by two-thirds of the delegation which condemned “the complacency of the NHL in regards to violence in hockey."
What motivated this motion? Well, like so many Quebecers who called the police about something they saw in a televised sporting event, Harvey was disturbed by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara’s hit on Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens in 2011.
Like, really disturbed. From the CP:
The league ruled the hit a "hockey play" and said if found no evidence that Chara delivered the check in any manner that could be deemed dangerous.
"When I saw that picture I thought, well, he could have been dead. He was unconscious on the ice and I thought well naturally they will punish this guy," Harvey said, adding that Chara should have been suspended for 50 to 80 games.
EIGHTY. GAMES. We continue:
"The owners have a financial interest in tolerating and promoting violence and we need to be a counterweight," he said.
I’ve always found this to be such a strange argument.
I’ve watched the NHL for over 25 years. I’ve actually been waiting for them to begin promoting violence in a way that would connect with casual American fans who only speak three languages in sports: Scoring, gambling and violence. And since the NHL will never have the first and Americans don’t wager on the second, the third option was always the best.
Yet for decades, the NHL ran away from violence while the NFL, pro wrestling and MMA captured huge market shares by embracing it.
The NHL has a winking acceptance of fighting, for example, as “part of the game.” Does it promote it? It doesn’t ignore it. But it’s still a League that markets offensive flourish, maudlin nostalgia and championship glory more than it does the Rock’em Sock’em stuff.
That said, the NHL isn’t eradicating its violent aspects, at least to Harvey’s satisfaction:
"I wanted my motion to be specific to the NHL because that's where it happens," said Harvey.
"If the NHL stops doing that or makes a significant move to reduce those concussion rates, I'm sure the whole hockey industry and minor league hockey will follow. We deplore it because it has a significant impact on our players health and those players are major role models for teenagers and kids," he said.
"They learn that's the way we play hockey and I think it's not acceptable to hit the head of someone."
The NHL, of course, has taken significant steps to reduce hits to the head and has overhauled its Department of Player Safety to be as much about education as it is punishment. It’s not a cure-all, but it’s going to have ripples for subsequent generations of players.
That’s my problem with the doctors’ condemnation: It’s hasty.
Take that study from Dr. Michael Cusimano of St. Michael's Hospital released earlier this year:
The data showed that there was no statistical significance in the incidence of concussions in the NHL in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons compared to the 2009-10 season. That latter was the year before the NHL rule change went into effect. The researchers estimated there were about 5.23 concussions per 100 games in the NHL regular season.
This has become chapter and verse for people like Dr. Harvey, despite the inherent flaws in the research. The concussion numbers are tabulated from media accounts of injuries; does anyone believe fewer concussions are reported today than in 2009? Of course not – players and teams are much more candid about head injuries now, either at the time of the injury or after the fact.
That skews the numbers, as any casual observer of the League understands. Unless, of course, you have an agenda and opt not to take that into account.
It’s not a sprint. The NHL is trying to literally overwrite years of training and playing for some of its athletes, as they reconsider how the game “should” be played. I think it’s making a difference, even if it’s not at the pace its critics desire.
The violence in the game is going to look much different a decade from now than it does today. Less fighting. Much less contact with the head. Perhaps other changes, from equipment to ice surface size, will influence it as well.
The opportunistic medical practitioners will still find fault in a violent sport; but I defy them to claim that the NHL would have been complacent in attempting to reduce that violence.