Keith Primeau was forced to retire after just nine games in 2005-06 from a concussion. (Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
I like Mike Milbury, especially since he moved out of the NHL’s GM community and began doling out riveting hockey analysis for NBC and CBC.
But being riveting doesn’t always translate into being rational or right. And such was the case when Milbury spoke out last week about the “pansification” of the NHL.
According to Milbury, here’s what would make the hockey world fatally limp-wristed and fey: a rule banning headshots.
Yup, that’s all. A simple safety rule to protect the short- and long-term well-being of the men everyone professes to love and respect.
In the NHL, this is what passes for sanity. And it has been that way since the league itself was formed, all those years ago when Chris Chelios was but a pimply-faced teenager.
Since the league’s inception, players have been relative afterthoughts, replaceable meat products to be treated with disdain virtually every time they attempted to improve their collective lot in life. From Ted Lindsay to Carl Brewer and right through today’s superstars, any player with a mind of his own winds up tagged as a “me-first” malcontent and finds himself marginalized accordingly.
The end result of years of this treatment is a sort of league-wide Stockholm Syndrome, with players swallowing whole the medieval rules of engagement set out by their overlords, despite the transparent disregard for them that extends long after their playing days are done.
That’s why Jarkko Ruutu can throw a vicious, premeditated elbow to the melon of Maxim Lapierre and get a lousy two-game suspension for it. That’s why Ryan Hollweg and his low-wattage ilk are so easily forgiven for their constant and increasingly grotesque transgressions.
And that’s why you’ll rarely see the NHL make any mention of players such as Adam Deadmarsh, Keith Primeau, Pat LaFontaine or Jeff Beukeboom. The reality is, their post-playing lives are nowhere close to as glamorous as they were when the league was employing them.
Indeed, their reality is quite the opposite.
"I know I'll never be 100 percent again,” Primeau told the Windsor Star last week. “I know that time doesn't heal this. In my case, it's inevitable. I don't live in fear of the future, but I recognize the damage I've done to my brain.”
Brain damage. Forget the Masterton Trophy – that’s one hell of a reward for dedicating your life to hockey. But hey, that’s just the way the old brain-cookie crumbles, right? You take your lumps, then live out your remaining days with your family using whatever mental marbles haven’t been crushed beyond repair.
That’s what being a manly man is all about in the hockey world.
"I watched a game the other night, and they called a vertical stick in the midsection as a penalty,” Primeau told The Star. “Okay, you want to clean up that stuff. Then they let a shoulder to the chin go. And that doesn't make any logical sense. If we're going to improve, there has to be a consequence to that sort of action (to the head).”
By Milbury’s standards, Primeau – a player who racked up 1,541 regular-season penalty minutes during his career – must be a pansy.
I suppose Mark Messier qualifies for the pink skirt brigade as well. After all, he just recently spoke out about the need to necessitate visors for all NHLers. Who stole his spine and replaced it with wet spaghetti?
While we’re asking questions the hockey establishment can’t and won’t answer, why is an NHLer’s character assassinated if he worries about workplace safety? Why is it considered weak to demand the same protections for players they would be afforded walking down the street?
At the rate stretchers are being used these days, players should be scared shiftless every time they step on the ice. Admitting that doesn’t make you a pansy. It makes you a realist.
Unfortunately, realism always seems to take a backseat to bravado in hockey, in large part because those who can change the equation for the better have had their brains in a concussion-like fog for far too long.
And one day, when the hockey industry gets a full, accurate portrait of the maelstrom of madness caused by concussions – a portrait that could look much like the sad story of former NFLers dealing with depression, dementia and suicide – I hope Milbury can look in the mirror and persuade himself he and his fellow gatekeepers of the game did all they could to curb the carnage.
It won’t be true, of course. But self-delusion is mandatory if you wish to be called a man in Mike Milbury’s NHL.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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