Brendan Shanahan and the NHL’s disciplinary system aren’t exactly known for their consistency. Every time a player takes a shot to the head they have a chance to right the ship and stamp out the garbage once and for all. Fans await the official response with bated breath, and for the most part they are let down time and time again.
Hockey has one of the deepest histories in professional sports, at least in North America. While the NFL and NBA don’t have hundreds of years worth of tradition to consider when making changes to their respective games, the NHL does. One of the aspects that is boiled deep into the psyche of your die-hard hockey fans is that it’s a man’s game, played by tough guys that can take a hit and play hurt and so on.
While that was fine in the ’60s and ’70s when players were chugging beer and smoking cigarettes before each game, that isn’t the case now. Conditioning is at an all-time high. 6’2″, 220 pound guys fly around like water bugs and are truly capable of injuring each other in the process.
Case in point: Alex Edler is listed at 6’3″ and weighs well over 200 pounds. The guy can skate, and when he gets going he can hurt people. That’s exactly what he tried to do last night when his Vancouver Canucks took on the San Jose Sharks for the second time in seven days.
He saw an opportunity to lay out San Jose’s best player (at this point) in Tomas Hertl, and clipped him in the head with a “body check.” Hertl’s helmet went flying into the air, and play continued as if nothing had happened. Sadly, those kind of head clips have ended careers. Just ask Marc Savard, Chris Pronger or any of the other players who have had their lives derailed by hits to the head.
That’s the part that seems to get lost in all of this. Fans only consider what’s happening out on the ice, and that simply isn’t good enough. When you have head trauma, your senses are shot and sometimes, your life is never the same. Sidney Crosby was forced to sit in a dark room for weeks while dealing with his concussion symptoms. He couldn’t drive or see straight most of the time.
Yet the response from the chest-pounding brutes is “he should have kept his head up” or “he chose to play a man’s game.” The responses on Twitter and social media in general to hits like these is sickening. That the average hockey Joe sees hockey players as a piece of meat, more or less. Whatever happens to them, they asked for it just by lacing up the skates and playing the game.
We could go on for another 1,000 words about the holes in that logic, but that isn’t the point here. The point is that every time a hit like this happens and the NHL lets it slide, it is perpetuating and reinforcing that culture of brutality. Whenever they suspend a guy, it goes the other way.
It’s a simple system of positive and negative enforcement, and so far there hasn’t been enough of the negative to make a difference. The day is coming where the league will have to decide what kind of game it wants to perpetuate: does it want to see an NHL full of John Scotts and Alexander Edlers who are free to take runs at the most talented players on the other team?
Does it want to allow force to reign supreme? Or does it want to be more of a thinking man’s game, full of slick passes, odd-man rushes and beautiful goals. The duality and existence of both is what makes hockey the best game on the face of the planet. There isn’t any other form of entertainment that can hit so many notes all at once.
Yet the cost of that entertainment is getting to be too high. It seems like every few days the NHL loses a player for a few weeks due to brain bruises. As fans—as the purchasers and pursuers of this culture—we are responsible for saying “enough is enough.” Lest we see our game go the way of the brute once and for all.