Monday, February 5, 2007

The NHL - Doesn't It Just Give You a Headache?

The NHL is fast running out of time.

I think that much is becoming pretty clear.

This is a league that only about 10 or 12 years ao was one of the most popular sports in North America, perhaps second only to the NFL. And yes, this included the United States as well, where as we all now know, relevance is absolutely essential for the success of a league with 24 of its 30 teams south of the 49th parallel.

Now in the U.S the NHL is broadcast on a network called Versus that I don't think many Americans get, let alone have heard of. And let's be honest, most that do get Versus aren't tuning in to it to watch hockey. But I'm not writing this to lament the NHL's lack of a real television contract or its total inability to sustain a fanbase in the U.S. I'm writing to address what is quickly becoming a huge problem in the NHL, the problem of head injuries and concussions.

Over the past few years the NHL has shown either their total lack of interest in dealing with the problem, their total inability to deal with the problem, or their total refusal to acknowledge this as a problem. It is definately one of these things, and probably all three. But the fact of the matter is that more and more players are having to deal with head injuries each week it seems. As of this writing, according to NHL injury reports there are at least fifteen or so NHL regulars out with concussions (and the number is probably much higher than this). And while these injuries may get classified as 'Upper Body' injuries, they are much different from a shoulder separation or a broken hand. Head injuries and concussions can easily be career ending and forever affect a person's quality of life (just ask Keith Primeau, Pat Lafontaine and Brett Lindros). But despite their seriousness, no steps have been taken by the NHL to protect its players.

But now you're saying to yourself, "what could the NHL possibly do to stop this, they can't make a hit to the head with a shoulder illegal. You can't have different types of bodychecks being legal and illegal." WELL WHY NOT?!?! As it stands now, hitting from behind, hits involving the stick, hits with the elbow, and hits where a player 'runs' at another are all deemed to be illegal and result in a minor penalty at the very least. How can hits to the head not be added to this list? Does the NHL think that a hit to the head with an elbow versus a hit to the head with a shoulder are really that different? It is absurd that one is legal while one is not. From what I've seen many, many concussions are the results of legal hits.

As a comparison, the NFL, much to its credit and benefit, has outlawed hits to the head of its quarterbacks, as well as banning a player leading or hitting with his helmet. Does this just make too much sense for the NHL? As well, the NFL has outlawed the hitting of a defenseless wide reciever, when he is in a position where he can't defend himself. This is another rule that the NHL absolutely has to adopt. How is hitting a player, especially with a blow to the head, when he is not in a position to defend himself considered a legal play? People will say that putting these types of rule changes in the NHL will just take the hitting out of hockey and make it no longer fun to watch. Well, A) Can anyone argue that these types of rule changes have taken the hitting or physicality out of the NFL? I thought not. And, B) Does anyone get any enjoyment out of watching a player laying motionless on the ice and taken off on a stretcher because he had his head down for a split second? We always hear commentators and the players themselves say of plays where players are injured, "You never want to see a guy get hurt out there." Well then how come nobody is talking about how we can cut down the number of times we have to hear that expression in a season?

There is another aspect of this argument that cannot be overlooked. The NHL as a league does not shoulder all the responsibility on this issue. The players themselves must also take some responsibility. It seems as though players have less respect for one another than ever before. Whether it's Chris Neil taking a run at Chris Drury's head, after Drury had already passed the puck and was looking in the other direction or Niklas Kronwal leaving his feet to plant his shoulder under the chin of an unsuspecting Joffrey Lupul (both excellent examples that have happened in the last week - with both players on the receiving ends of the hits ending up with concussions). These types of hits are totally unnessecary and add absolutely nothing to the game of hockey.

In order to get any credibility as a relevant sports league back, this is one of the problems (and yes, there are many others) that the NHL must deal with. Right now in the United States, the NHL is at best a niche-sport and at worst a blood-sport, that people tune into to get the same things they would get out of a UFC event or NASCAR. It has been very sad to see the NHL reduced to such a level and perhaps even sadder to see the league have no idea or no desire to change for the better. The time has come for the NHL to take a look in the mirror and see what it has become. The players now are simply too big, too strong and have too much equipment for nothing to be done about this. One step in the right direction, back towards credibility, would be for the league to have a little accountibility and start taking an active interest in protecting its players.

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