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Top Shelf: Violence in our game – the battle between primal and prudence

Arron Asham skates away after laying a hit on Jack Hillen. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Arron Asham skates away after laying a hit on Jack Hillen. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

Like Kobe and Shaq during their Laker days, my head and gut play for the same team, but don’t always get along.

The battle flares up every time we see a serious injury result from physical play in hockey or any sport for that matter.

The head wins out easily when it comes to hits like the much-talked-about Patrice Cormier elbow, an act everyone will agree crosses the line. The more arduous undertaking is figuring out where exactly to draw those lines, because increasingly, it seems like they’re on the move.

Like any Habs fan born after the team’s glory days can attest to, the fact we don’t get to choose which era we live in is an unfortunate, non-negotiable aspect of life. The sense I get from a huge portion of the hockey-watching community is that there’s a longing for a time when rough stuff was chalked up to the boys doing what the boys do. Like it or not, that’s no longer the world we operate in.

Our most recent issue of The Hockey News noted the overwhelming majority of young players wear visors now. That isn’t going to change, just as we aren’t going to see legislation that repeals the use of helmets or looser restrictions with regard to the manner in which you can physically paste an opponent.

Boxing went from bare-knuckles to gloves. Football isn’t about to start encouraging the violent helmet-to-helmet hits it now penalizes. Awareness isn’t something you can shift into reverse.

It’s the same for our society as a whole, which obviously operates with a much more kid-gloves approach to everything from raising kids to what is and isn’t deemed to be publicly acceptable behavior. In some cases it’s a good thing; others not. But there’s no denying the paradigm shift. And, again, it’s hard to imagine a dramatic change in course now.

It applies to sports because where once people dismissively chalked up injuries and ailments as part and parcel with the process, I get the sense they now more closely examine the overall standing of hard, physical sports. Reports of retired NFL players being high-risk cases for dementia or the post-concussion trauma some NHLers battle seem to be resonating with the general population more and more.

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Which brings us back to where we draw those lines. Elbows to the head and hits from behind are things we all agree can’t happen. But what about those actions that fall within the bounds of the rules that can still leave players seriously injured? Right now, it’s hard to imagine taking any other mentality than, that’s the way the game is played and if you don’t like it, take up chess.

And people don’t just like it, they love it. Sports exists to scratch a primal itch and the physicality it houses is a huge part of that. It gets you in the gut, which is why some of the smartest people I know tune into hockey largely because, quite simply, they enjoy watching people smash into each other.

Not long ago, I think it was easy enough to sell the simple notion that you enter into a sport with your eyes open, so there’s no need to look away when some blood splatters because that’s the way the potato mashes.

I don’t think that mentality is going to get run through the end boards any time soon because too many people still subscribe to it. But I do wonder if, somewhere down the road, sports like hockey may be forced to undergo a fundamental shift thanks to changing codes in the outside world.

My gut has a hard time completely getting on board with this notion, but my head tells me it’s something that won’t go away.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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