Monday, 2 November 2009

Maybe We're The Problem

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.

Fanelli remains in a Hamilton hospital as you read this in critical but stable condition with skull and facial fractures, including a broken orbital bone. Liambas was given a match penalty for boarding, but does that punishment fit the crime? As Fanelli's career hangs in limbo, Liambas, who was reportedly shaken up by the incident, is under indefinite suspension until he meets with OHL Commissioner David Branch. While I'm not blaming Liambas for throwing the hit, I am blaming the coaches who would have blasted him once he got back to the bench for "playing soft".

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.

"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."
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.

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!


Captain Canuck said...

speaking only of clean open ice shoulder to head hits.... I'm 6'5", if a little 5'10" forward cuts across the ice on my blue line, and I hit him clean.... where do you think my shoulder is going to hit him?
You cannot outlaw clean hits to the head unless you add a rule that players must be at least 6'1" to play in the NHL.
Any talk of outlawing hits to the head is garbage by people who haven't played the game because it's an impossible thing to do.

Teebz said...

If you can't hit the other 4'10" of him, you clearly haven't learned how to throw a bodycheck. You're aiming for the head, and that's precisely what needs to be eliminated.

I'm not looking to outlaw hitting. I'm banning any contact with the head. It doesn't matter if you hit him clean or not - contact to the head needs to be eliminated.

I have and still play the game. Granted, a beer league is far less intense than the NHL, but no one is out there looking to ruin someone's life. Hits to the head, as shown in the rule, are outlawed for that very reason: brain injuries are significant and long-lasting.

And if you're dropping your shoulder to hit a 5'10" guy when you're 6'5", you're head-hunting.

JTH said...

So Teebz, are you saying that Mitchell's hit on Toews was illegal? I was watching that game and it looked clean to me. Hawks' announcers Eddie Olczyk and Pat Foley also thought it was clean, even after many replays. And watching the clip you linked, the TSN announcers seem to agree.

It appeared to be shoulder-to-shoulder contact. I didn't see any contact with the head and Mitchell had his arm down.

Peter said...

While that was a vicious hit...can some light be shed how the helmet actually may have saved his life?

Teebz, I believe it was you that pointed out that Messier is striving to create better head gear, to help prevent injuries as in this extreme case.

I truly don't believe the hit was malicious, that same hit has been delivered 1000's of times, but due to the young age of the guy getting hit, what are his chances of playing again?

Is second impact syndrome as serious in Hockey as in High School level football?

Teebz said...

JTH - I don't believe Mitchell's hit was more vicious than any of the others, and it appears that it is shoulder-on-shoulder which is legal. But the fact that he blindsided Toews makes it extremely dangerous. I'm all for legal big hits, but there's a respect factor that I want to see players adopt. And this is one such case where Mitchell could have slowed up Toews with no penalty rather than knocking him silly.

Peter - the helmet may have done some good, but with his facial injuries and possible brain injury, it means little. I agree that good work is being done on the equipment level, but the truth of the matter is that Liambis is the only person who could have changed the outcome of that hit if he had simply made a different choice. I'm not blaming Liambis, though, because his coaches would have ripped him a new one if he didn't throw the check. Therefore, the culture is to blame.

Again, I'm not asking for hits to be outlawed. I am asking for head checks to be penalized. If the brain is the most important organ in your body, why aren't we protecting it more?

Dondi said...

How come this doesn't happen in other contact sports like NFL Football and Lacrosse...or does it? I don't watch American Football or Lacrosse...I do recall Football players literally dying on the field from the heat or some such.

I don't buy the culture argument. The NHL has always been a collection of disrespectful bastards that we all hated unless they played for our team (e.g. Gassoff, Wensink, John Kordic, etc. etc. as far as I can tell, these guys played to kill EVERYONE on the opposing team). I also don't buy the enforcer role that puts fear in other players to prevent dirty hits...I'm 100% certain Bonvie has absolutely no fear of Probert even after the beating he took. I recall the great Paul Stuart once say he had no fear of the Bruins, let alone Stan Jonathan...I think he said Jonathan beat Pierre Bouchard to a bloody pulp, but who the hell did Pierre Bouchard beat?

You know, if I was a owner, I'll be super f'n pissed if my $50 Million dollar investment just goes down the toilet because some asshole treated his head like a Fun-Go ball.

I don't know. I don't have a point...I just want my old NHL back. There was nothing wrong with it. I'm one of those grumpy old farts that can't handle change.

Teebz said...


The frequency of head injuries compared to football injuries is about 5:1. The reason? Football helmets are designed to absorb hits. The hockey helmet is not.

However, the number of NFL players who are suffering from long-term head injuries is staggering.

Protecting the head is paramount in both leagues, but neither league knows how to establish a rule, and neither league wants to accept responsibility for players who may be suffering from these injuries.

It's a slippery slope, but unless someone steps up to help the $50 million investment, you're assuming a Bernie Madoff-style risk with your investment. One hit, and that player could be done.

Keith Primeau, Eric Lindros, and Pat Lafontaine are your references in this scenario.

Dondi said...

Right right...I did see an HBO Sports special (or some such US TV program) about old time pro football players with unfortunate effects from head injuries way after they retire. Or was that boxing? My memory is fading...

Just my thoughts on the Liambas hit. I've only seen the hit on CBC in slow motion (I can't see Youtube feeds at work) and it looked clean to me. Liambas did charge at him full tilt starting at the blue line...was that necessary? Probably not. It's a freak accident. Hockey is a rough game...unfortunately kids sometimes get seriously hurt and I'm sure it's a risk they are all aware of and accept. I certainly hope Fanelli comes back 100%.

My inappropriate rant of the day - let's just hope the OHL doesn't go the way of the Q; my opinion, the biggest fags among the three. My trailer park white trash ass will root for the WHL where real hockey is still being played.

Dube said...

Teebz, I'm both a hockey fan and a medical student so maybe I'm coming from a different perspective. I've got 2 points to make.
In no way am I blaming Fanelli (and I agree with your post over the danger of shots to the head and I can surely tell you all of the dangers of head trauma from my work in various Emergency Departments), but if you look at the replay, Fanelli’s helmet chin strap is not snug around his chin, and his helmet is therefore jarred off with the huge hit. Does anyone remember the Kariya or or Tony Granato or Lindros post-concussion NHL career talk? Just ask Dr. Karen Johnson, the Neurosurgeon and Director of Neurotrauma at McGill. It was all about a better protective helmet which both fits properly and is worn correctly. Correctly as in snug around the chin and not how he or many NHLers do (Ryan Callahan comes to mind - if you watch a NYR game, his helmet is constantly flopping around since his chin strap isn’t tight enough). It's a matter of proper equipment, and coaches, trainers and equipment managers all need to be aware of this.
Secondly, Fanelli seems to have turned at the last moment, thus both exposing his back and lowering his head to Liambas's shoulder/elbow level. Again, there should be nopthong legal about a hit to the head, but if Fanelli doesn’t turn and lower his head, it’s might be at most a 2 min penalty for charging.
Med student hockey nut

Teebz said...

Good point about the chinstrap, Zvi, and it might be why football players have a lower rate of incidents for concussions. They are mandated to have the chinstrap properly fastened or they are penalized. Maybe this is something like the fight strap in the jersey: everyone has it done up properly, or you're assessed a game misconduct.

As for the hit itself, Liambis finished his check well after the puck was gone. The Hockey News even said that the only person who could have changed the outcome of this hit was Liambis.

I'll have more on this tomorrow, but great discussion and some excellent points, everyone.