Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Where The Onus Falls

I'm sure you remember this image of Paul Kariya lying motionless on the ice in Game Six of the 2003 Stanley Cup Final. Scott Stevens absolutely destroyed Kariya as he watched his pass, leaving him motionless except for the condensation of his breath on his visor. Honestly, it was a scary hit, and one that has not been forgotten by a lot of hockey fans. Surprisingly, Kariya returned in that game and scored the game-winning goal. The question has to be asked, though: how badly did that hit rattle Kariya's brain inside of his skull, and what were the lasting effects that it had?

More importantly, hits like this today are becoming more and more common. Philly's Mike Richards threw a devastating hit on Florida's David Booth, and Booth still hasn't returned from his concussion. With star players moving at increased speeds thanks to the NHL cracking down on obstruction, there will be more high-speed collisions, resulting in an increased number of injuries. Because of the faster speeds, players have less time to react as well, so there is less preparation time when it comes to bracing for a big hit. In knowing this, it was refreshing to read Sheldon Souray's comments to Sportsnet.ca's Mark Spector.

“The responsibility, a lot of it, doesn’t really fall on a committee or the league, or general managers cracking down. It’s the players. Ultimately it’s the players who go out there and see opportunities when guys are vulnerable.

“You don’t have to knock a guy out for a month. It’s unnecessary. It doesn’t make you any tougher, it doesn’t gain you any more respect among the group. It has no purpose. It is so unnecessary to go out there and follow through when you know there is a chance.

“This has to fall on the players. Absolutely has to.”
That "chance" Souray is talking about is the chance of injury, something no player enjoys having happen to them. And Souray should know - he missed 16 games earlier in the season with a concussion.

Now, it's one thing to talk about change, and another to institute it. However, Souray and his Edmonton teammates have already begun that process in their own practices. They use two words to let the player know that a hit is coming:

"Heads up!"

“I do it — and guys have done it for me,” Souray said this week. “As a matter of fact it happened at the end of (Saturday’s Washington) game, against Ovechkin. I was going to hit him and said, ‘Head’s up!’ You know. ‘It’s comin’!’”

And I commend Souray for speaking out about this. I'm not here to play the blame game and rip one side or the other. But it's refreshing to hear a multi-million dollar athlete say "my bad" when it comes to how the game is played. And it's entirely encouraging when he stands up and says "I'm going to fix this".

The NHL has done enough tinkering and changing of the rules to ensure that the players are protected from themselves. At some point, the players have to agree to meet the NHL halfway and start changing the way they play the game. This is the same agreement they have with the NHL in regards to their Collective Bargaining Agreement, so why can't the product on the ice be viewed in the same light?

Of course, there will be those in the NHLPA who will still advocate that the NHL is responsible for making the rules that the players follow, but, to that, I must point out the obstruction that we saw run rampant in the mid-1990s. The rules were always there to prevent stick infractions and interference, but the referees, players, and coaches began to adapt their styles to allow this type of play to dominate that decade.

The solution came from the NHL in that they told the NHL officials and the NHLOA to start calling the rules as they were written in the rule book. The result? The game we see today. Faster, better, and more exciting. The NHL and the officials worked together to make the game better by reducing the stuff that slowed the game down. This has worked to the NHL's advantage as well as the NHLPA's advantage in that the game is growing in popularity, albeit slowly.

There have been discussions and debates every week in hockey circles about head shots and what to do about them. It has branched out into the medical community as well after the discovery of the trauma on Reggie Fleming's brain. There will continue to be discussions as to how to reduce the number of checks to the head and the growing epidemic of concussions in hockey. This is a no-brainer.

However, if the officials and NHL executives have put the safeguards in place to help prevent these hits from happening, which is the only group that hasn't changed anything to help stop players from getting hurt?

Sheldon Souray's suggestion is what we call "common courtesy" in the real world. If someone tosses something at you without you watching, what is the most common phrase heard?

"Heads up."

Are hockey players less courteous to each other than you or I? They are all part of the same union and they all work for the same organization, so I can't see the argument of "us versus them" working very well.

Perhaps this element of respect is being lost in the speeches that coaches give their players. David Branch stressed the respect factor in his decision to suspend Michael Liambis after his crushing hit on Ben Fanelli. Coahces preach the importance of "finishing checks", but there's a difference between finishing a check and finishing off someone's career. If you don't believe me, check footage from the early-1980s when the Islanders and Oilers were playing. Guys would eliminate their checks out of the play rather than trying to decapitate them. Big difference in terms of the respect for your fellow opponent.

"Heads up" is exactly that: respect for your opponent and your fellow union member. The call of "heads up" still allows for a big check to be thrown. The difference is that the player receiving the check has a chance to brace for impact. Because of this, injuries would decrease as players are given a chance to protect themselves from the violent hit they are about to receive.

Kudos to Sheldon Souray. This might be the best suggestion for a better NHL since the reduction of obstruction. Now he just needs to sell the idea to the other members of the NHLPA. Once the players are onboard, things should change dramatically for the better once again.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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