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Monday, April 4, 2011

Ex NHL’er teaches his players that being smart is better than being macho

Concussions have become, quite rightly, a cause for concern and a major issue in sports, most notablythough certainly not exclusively in the world of football and, of course, hockey.

The concern exists not only at the professional level, but all the way through to youth sports.

The modern-day speed of games like hockey and football, the hard, massive equipment worn and the size of the players all create a potent cocktail that has seen the number of reported concussions seemingly skyrocket in the past few years.

However, what is too often lost in this debate is that much of the “problem” seems to stem from long-held, traditional attitudes about what it takes and what it means to be a “tough” athlete.

One former NHL player, Mike Van Ryn, is now the coach of young hockey players at the junior (under 20) level. Mike’s career ended abruptly when he suffered a serious injury. A defenseman, he was hurt going back to get the puck near the end boards in his own zone, when he was hammered by an opposing player.

The idea that you have to get to the puck first is part of the old hockey code, it seems. You have to be willing, players are told, to be tough and “take the hit”.

But Van Ryn is evidently telling his players that being smart can be the more prudent thing.

A March 22, 2011 story by Alan Maki in the Globe & Mail sports section well outlines Van Ryn’s teaching approach.

If the link doesn’t work, the story in brief is this: Van Ryn now looks back and wonders if he should have played a bit differently. Not necessarily more cautiously, perhaps, but smarter. Don’t feel, as a defenseman, that you always have to take the big hit behind your net to get to the puck first.

In fact, after a recent Ontario Hockey League game, when one of his defenseman, who is only 16 weights less than 170 pounds was being chased down by an older player who weighs 230 pounds, the younger player got out of the way.

He went back to the bench and apologized, no doubt feeling he had not played it tough enough and that he had let his teammates down, or that his coaches would be upset.

But as the Globe story reports, Van Ryn told the young man he did the right thing, while harkening back to the play that ended his own pro career when he was hit by fellow NHL’er Tom Kostopolous…

“I said to him, ‘You’re in a vulnerable position, try to protect yourself,’” Van Ryn recalled. “If I didn’t make a play on that puck, maybe I don’t get hurt. Maybe Tom Kostopoulos doesn’t get suspended.”

There is much talk, and rightly so again, about how to deal more effectively with concussions after the fact. The best thing we can do is to take steps to try to help prevent them as best we can in sports where there obviously is going to be tough, physical contact.

And changing the old ‘macho’ mentality, those attitudes that many of us still cling to, may be the hardest, but most important step of all. This is particularly important when this “attitude” seeps into the youth sports world.

This is something I’ve been advocating for some time (see older posts on this issue here "Time to Take a step back" and here , my column on headshots in hockey ), but it’s not a popular perspective, it seems. Yet many are coming to a similar conclusion-as we see in this link at the Toronto Star and at CBC Sports.

Hockey and football are great games. Sports can be a tremendous outlet and life experience for many, even a career for a few.

And fans love their athletes to be skilled, hard-working and yes, aggressive. But you can compete and still have respect for your opponent. And that can include being aware the he/she has the right to compete in an environment where they aren’t in danger of sustaining injuries that are, in fact, preventable, or injuries that result from dangerous, reckless or intentionally violent acts.

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