This is probably a scene that everyone vividly remembers. Eric Lindros, one of the premiere power forwards at the time, was left lying crumpled on the ice after a huge hit by Scott Stevens as he crossed into the Devils' zone. Lindros was never the same after that hit, and the concussion he suffered affected him for years later. He didn't have the same drive to the net, he didn't have the same reckless abandon when crossing into the offensive zone, and he certainly didn't look like the leader of the Flyers after that hit. Hits like these ones are becoming more and more frequent in today's game. While I appreciate a big hit as much as the next fan, there needs to be a line drawn in the sand when it comes to vicious hits to the head. I'm not sure exactly who will draw the line in the NHL, but I want to re-open this debate with the recent explosion of hits we've seen over the last couple of weeks.
"You can go on changing the outer for lives and you will never be satisfied; something or other will remain to be changed. Unless the inner changes, the outer can never be perfect." - Osho
Those words should resonate with everyone involved in making rules at every hockey level. Rather than not making a stand to protect players in their respective leagues, presidents and commissioners of hockey leagues need to start looking at changing the culture of hockey in order for the players to start respecting one another on the ice.
If you haven't seen the video yet, here is the footage from the recent Kitchener Rangers-Erie Otters game on October 30. 16 year-old rookie Ben Fanelli heads behind his net to pick up the loose puck, and moves it off to his right. As he turns behind the net, Otters forward Michael Liambas throws a heavy check, and the results aren't good.
What does that mean? How does one "play soft"? I understand that finishing your checks is important, but why does it mean that a player has to deliver a potentially devastating hit on an opponent? Is respect for others simply not part of the game any longer? Do players take the new equipment for granted in terms of how much it protects them from harm? Why do players feel the need to throw a hit on a vulnerable opponent whenever they get a chance?
The hits have been a-plenty since the start of the season. Anaheim's James Wisniewski delivers a forearm to Phoenix's Shane Doan's head. Philly's Mike Richards nearly decapitates Florida's David Booth. Carolina's Tuomo Ruutu faceplants Colorado's Darcy Tucker into the glass. Vancouver's Willie Mitchell smokes Chicago's Jonathan Toews. The key in all of these hits? The hitter makes contact with the head of the victim.
Maybe we're a violent society. Sure, we claim to be peaceful, law-abiding citizens, but maybe we're not so different than some of the people of the past when it comes to our lust of violence and blood.
We look at the Romans and wonder how they built structures of death like the Coloseum where gladiators would battle to the death. Yet we sit in modern versions of the Coloseum and watch our favorite sports: hockey, football, rugby, boxing, and mixed martial arts. We cheer our gladiators when they deliver the deathblow to an opponent, and applaud the carnage that unfolds before our eyes. We cringe when we see something gruesome, but, like a car accident, you cannot look away.
Instead, we're drawn to it. We want to see the blood. Sports highlight packages replay these incidents over and over and over ad nauseum, and we watch them again and again and again. In football, fans go wild when a defensive player "pops" an offensive player, planting him on the ground. In hockey, everyone loves a big hit as well, but why are head checks still legal? Why can no one admit that concussions - no matter how small or insignificant - are dangerous in both the short-term and long-term? And why do we cheer these devastating hits, especially when the player doesn't get up?
Look, I can't come up with an answer here. I don't know why professional hockey leagues haven't made strides to protect a player's head, let alone their livelihood. There are a number of leagues that are now adding clauses to their rulebook in order to bring about a change in the culture. From the Manitoba AAA Midget Hockey League's Rulebook:
"Deliberate checks to the head remain to be a major problem in today's game. Concussions not only deprive players of playing time, they end players' careers and can have long term effects.It makes me happy to see that the developmental leagues are stressing the importance of protecting a player's head. These are the players who may be the next wave of NHL, AHL, ECHL, and CHL players, but they may not continue in hockey at all. They could be teachers, doctors, lawyers, or any number of occupations, and all require an alert, functional brain to do their jobs well.
"Checks to the Head demonstrate a lack of respect and fair play and must be penalized. Any moderate or severe blow to the head must be penalized with a Minor Penalty and a Misconduct or a Major penalty and a Game Misconduct for Checking to the Head as concussions and other head injuries are having a major impact on the game. A Match penalty could also be assessed under this rule. These are aggressive fouls and must be called at ALL occurrences during the hockey game, including shorthanded situations.
"Whether it is elbowing, high sticking, roughing or cross-checking, hits to the head are an intentional act of violence and must be treated with zero tolerance on the part of the official at all times."
Puck Daddy had an excellent piece on the impact of penalizing head checks in the NHL last season (almost to the day), and I can honestly say that not only would players learn to throw a proper bodycheck once again, but the level of respect for other players would increase exponentially in terms of respecting the head area.
I'm not saying that I want hitting taken out the game or reduced in any way. That would be the exact opposite of what I want to see, in fact. What I am proposing is that all professional leagues should take a look at the OHL's rules. Sure, there probably are exceptions to the rule, but the OHL isn't concerned with exceptions. They are asking the officials to determine the severity of the contact with the head, and to penalize it appropriately based upon the impact made with the head of the player.
That, to me, makes total sense.
While our thirst for blood as fans will probably never be quenched, it would be a far better place if some of the best players to ever step foot on the ice were still able to participate in the game. Guys like Jeff Beukeboom, Pat Lafontaine, Eric Lindros, and Brett Lindros might still be playing. When medical professionals are telling everyone that brain injuries are causing massive psychological and emotional damage to athletes, you would think that people would listen.
Except that the NHL isn't. It only hears the cheering and applause for another bone-rattling hit. Maybe if we stop cheering for these hits, they'll take notice. Maybe if we demand more for the gladiators on the ice, they'll hear us.
Maybe we, the fans, have been the problem for too long. If you're part of the problem, you can also be part of the solution. It's time for us to help professional hockey players. Let's come up with a solution for them.
And for us while we're at it.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!