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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hockey culture, headshots and no solutions

Concussions are far from a new topic in sports. The concern is particularly pronounced in the National Football League and the National Hockey League, two very physical, violent professional sports leagues.

Both leagues are trying (belatedly) to curb “head shots”, an obvious root cause (but only one cause) of serious concussions.

The recent injury to Pittsburgh Penguin superstar Sydney Crosby, on the heels of a seemingly innocuous nudge from an opposing player during a recent game, has only served to heighten the debate in the hockey world.

Did the player mean to run into Crosby as he did? Was it intentional, or an accident? As “hits” go it was seemingly insignificant. However, it led to a serious injury.

Unfortunately, the issue, as I’ve discussed in the past here, goes well beyond an occasional hit to the head in the course of a hockey game, for example, which can lead to a serious injury. Moreover, I sense it goes beyond the much-discussed “lack of respect” that players are said to lack for one another in the modern era. Both of those things are concerns, to be sure, but there have been hits to the head, concussions and a lack of respect for as long as I can remember in hockey. (I well recall vicious stick-swinging incidents in the 1960s and ‘70s, and those types of incidents occurred well before my time, as well.)

We can throw in hitting from behind, late hits after a pass is made (also called “finishing your check”), as well as excessive boarding.

Given the speed of hockey (and football, for that matter) nowadays—and all of the above as a backdrop— it’s actually shocking that more players aren’t seriously injured

The underlying concern, for me, as a lifelong observer, is the culture of these sports, the mentaility that seems to be imparted into young athletes from a very early age. Players are expected to be tough, very tough. If they miss time because of injury, others question their commitment. In hockey, every pro team has “enforcers” or “policemen”. They are needed, we are told, to keep the other team “honest”.

And it’s been this way for generations.

What is the line between a “hockey play” and a penalty? What is the line between a “good, clean hit”, or body check, and a dirty play? The NHL, for examplel, keeps changing the rules in an effort to decrease the number of injuries. Fair enough. But how does a player, moving at full tilt (and trained to behave this way) and “lining up” another player, ensure in a split second that he doesn’t strike the head of another player—who is also often moving at high speed?

Youth hockey, for example, has taken progressive steps in recent years, adding the “STOP” sign on the back of jerseys to remind players not to take liberties with other players in terms of hits from behind.

However, the culture still remains the same after all these years. Yes, hockey is about skating, passing, shooting—all the wonderful artistic, skill-oriented things that we all admire.

But if most people are honest, it is also about, for many of them— as administrators, coaches, players or fans— violence. That violence comes in the form “clean” hits, which can still knock someone senseless. Hits against immovable boards. Hits throwing players into unbreakable glass. Crosschecking (within "legal" limits, or until a referee has seen enough in front of the net). Slashing.

A year ago (January 2010), former NHL’er turned TV analyst Nick Kypreos spoke with the Toronto Sun. At the time, the suspension to Quebec junior player Patrice Cormier was a hot topic, as his hit on an unsuspecting opposing player caused a major injury—and a season-ending suspension for young Cormier.

“I’m not proud to say it, but I felt like if I could kill somebody with a legal check, I would do it,” Kypreos said, reflecting on his career during a discussion on vicious bodychecking — whether clean or illegal — on The Fan 590.

“That’s how much emotion, and outside the norm (of society that a hockey player) can get ... there is no rhyme or reason.

“I have been out there and looked at another guy’s eyes and I thought ‘I could kill you.’”
“Bodychecking is so much more than just getting the puck,” Kypreos said in an interview following the Hockey Central broadcast.

“It can involve drawing some emotions that you’re not proud of.”

We’ve managed, in society, to create greater awareness around all kinds of important issues: environmental sustainability; the dangers of cigarette smoking; cultural and religious tolerance and respect; drinking and driving; equality regardless of gender.

These are major attitude shifts that took time to become “mainstream” and went against the traditions and comfort zones of many people. Nevertheless, most would argue it was worthwhile because the end result was a more compassionate, healthier, fairer society for all.

In sports, and certainly in hockey, is it even possible, I wonder, to move away from the macho, “tough” culture which has been a part of the game for as long as anyone can remember?

I don’t know. Many will argue that too much will be lost if such a “fundamental” part of the game is eroded.

Still, unless and until that cultural shift happens, we can change rules, we can suspend players, we can talk about respect, and we can put signs on the back of jerseys, but until there is a fundamental sea change in attitude from administrators, to coaches, players and those responsible for youth sports organizations, things won’t really change.