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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

It’s past the time to take a step back

First published on prospectcommunications.blogspot.com - Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Credit should go to Ryan Pyette of the London Free Press for his recent thoughtful piece on serious hockey injuries as an issue leaders in the sport simply have to look at.

The column came on the heels of an incident in which a young 16 year-old Ontario Hockey League player was seriously injured when checked, arguably from behind, by a 20 year-old player.

The league has now suspended the aggressor for the rest of the season.

As Pyette points out, hockey is a fast, skilled and physically tough sport. Injuries will happen, many without any intent on the part of the person who caused the injury.

Toughness and hard-hits have always been a part of the game, and applauded by almost everyone. No one wants to see a hockey game without physical contact. It’s part of why millions love NFL football, and professional hockey.

But we have reached a point where the physical nature of the sport –fueled by how those in the sport still think about toughness - may well have pushed the envelope too far for the good of the players and the game itself.

Pyette raises the issue of whether parents will now –more than ever- consider college hockey as a better and safer alternative for their sons.

Here’s the reality: As I mentioned above, the history of Canadian hockey is that we like our skill, we like a fast game, but we seem to love that hard-hitting, tough style.

It leads to a macho mentality. You have to finish your checks, and hit hard. Very hard. I’ve had hockey parents come up to me and talk about their son playing youth hockey, “You should have seen my son drill that guy”. It’s a source of pride to be tough.

“Toughness” can be a great quality in life. Mental toughness is important. Many sports do demand a kind of physical toughness.

But like most “good” things, taken too far, it’s a problem.

Players can say they don’t hit to injure, but they certainly hit to hurt, and given the reality of the human body, that’s really no distinction at all.

Players are bigger and skate faster than ever before. The huge equipment players wear is a big problem. It makes players feel they aren’t vulnerable, yet they are, in part because of the equipment they wear.

Football and hockey were both probably safer (still “hard-hitting” but safer) when players dressed more like rugby players than gladiators.

Think about: fans -and the media - have spent countless hours in recent years discussing the apparent epidemic of serious injuries—head shots (many still “legal” in hockey terms); hitting from behind situations; concussions; knee injuries and more.

It really does have to stop.

When you have 16 year-old playing against men, the risks are already there. Unless hockey authorities begin to absolutely, once and for all, outlaw hitting from behind or even the side, this problem will continue.

NHL GM’s met this week, and reports suggest movement was made about creating new rules to reduce dangerous hits. Too often in the past the league talked around the real issues. They can’t seem to decide what types of hits should be “legal”.

To me, the question is not what is legal in hockey terms, but what is dangerous.

The game has changed. Rules, and what is—and isn’t—allowed, should evolve as a result.

It has taken generations to get people to recognize the problems associated with smoking, for example, and to change behaviour. And still, probably 20% or more of people smoke in Canada and the United States.

Changing the mentality around hockey won’t be easy. You don’t want to lose the great parts of the action, but surely protecting the basic safety of vulnerable athletes—especially at the younger ages—must be a priority.

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