I must acknowledge that I have been a passionate hockey fan all my life. I love the skill on skates, the vision that good players demonstrate, their ability to think ahead, the artistry and yes, the power that players can exhibit in making moves while making a play or a good, clean hit.
However, like many others, I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the state of the game, including at the youth levels.
The issue of “body checking” at the youth levels has been hotly debated now for many years across Canada. Some believe allowing it at the so-called ‘rep levels’ (very competitive) is a good idea, because it gets players to learn how to “take a check”, and makes it safer for them in the long run.
Others suggest that it takes some of the the skill out of the game (because small players may be fearful), causes unnecessary injuries and actually pushes a lot of talented kids into other sports.
It’s a difficult issue.
When I was a kid fifty years ago “hitting” was barely part of the discussion. I learned to play the game on frozen ponds in the dead (cold) of winter in the small town where I lived. The game was fun and it was largely about skating, competing with friends and staying out on the ice until your feet were so frozen you couldn’t bear it any longer.
Things have changed dramatically, of course, and in many ways for the better, I suppose. Organized competitive hockey has pretty much ended that bygone era. That organized aspect brings many good things for kids and families, but it, not surprisingly, has eventually led to a host of other issues.
I read recently where a young Canadian player was injured in an NCAA college game. A big hit that he took caused a broken neck, and it took some time for the young man’s injuries to stabilize in the hospital afterwards. It was a very sad event, and horribly frightening for any hockey parent to contemplate.
I didn’t see the play so I can’t comment on whether it was a “dirty” hit or not. (The offending player was given a major and a misconduct penalty.) But the point, for me, is that we have reached a stage in hockey, even at the pro levels, where hitting has become too pervasive a part of the game. The NHL, all the way down to youth hockey, is trying, they say, to crack down on “head shots”, for example. This follows a similar focus on “hits from behind”.
But the culture of the sport is a concern. The macho sense that a player must be “tough”—and I acknowledge I like a good clean hit at the pro level— seems to be permeating the sport to a worrisome degree.
This is not entirely new, of course. The actions of the “Broad Street Bullies” (the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s), set the game back for years. Young players copied their brawling, fighting style.
But in this day and age it’s about not just fighting, but hitting.
That pressure to “hit hard”, from management, coaches and fans alike, combined with the ever-increasing speed in the game, conspires to make a bad cocktail. Throw in the hard, large equipment that players wear and is it any wonder we have concerns about serious injuries— including life-altering concussions—right across the board in the sport of hockey?
The only way this really gets solved is if certain aspects of the sport are somehow de-emphasized, and that would take a major shift in attitude.
And I don’t think that is forthcoming.