David Booth lies on the ice after being hit in the head by Mike Richards earlier this season. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
Another day, another concussion.
That’s the approximate rate at which brain injuries are occurring in the sphere The Hockey News regularly covers. Somewhere in the NHL, American League, Canadian League, NCAA, Europe or the lower minors, a player is getting his bell rung and being forced out of action each day, on average. Probably more than one.
The major league totals are roughly 70 per season, give or take, which translates to about one every 18 games, or one every three days.
Clearly, it’s a problem. That is not news, but consensus.
The solution? Some advocate the implementation of an all-encompassing head-shot rule and hold up the NFL as an example of a league that has identified a problem and taken real steps to rectify it. Those critics clearly haven’t done their homework.
The rate of reported brain injuries in big league football makes the NHL’s problem look as paltry as the Coyotes’ average attendance. In the NFL, a player is concussed in one of every two games. On any given Sunday, that’s eight men out with head trauma. That’s an epidemic.
And the Ontario League’s results with its head-shot edict? There’s no definitive data available, but those who follow the league closely believe serious head injuries are down. There’s also an element of OHL fandom which believes hitting is down, too.
If the head-shot rule is not the magic elixir, what then? Here are some thoughts. It should be noted, I’m not advocating the NHL necessarily adopt these measures, but identifying steps that could be taken to better protect brains:
• Stricter enforcement of boarding and charging rules. Faster and stronger players are hitting each other with more force than ever before. Running an opponent into the boards, therefore, has become increasingly dangerous. A crackdown on these types of hits, with more majors being assessed, is an option worth considering.
• Curb fighting. Gary Bettman has said the league believes one in three or four concussions comes as the result of a fight. Stiffer penalties for punch-ups – perhaps ejections or an instigator for every bout – would logically diminish the instance of head trauma.
• Stricter enforcement of chin strap fastening. Is there any reason this isn’t already in play? If the league mandates helmets must be worn by all players for safety reasons, why wouldn’t it take steps to ensure they’re all done up properly?
• The introduction of an unnecessary roughness penalty. This steals from football, granted, but differs from the all-encompassing head-shot rule in that it gives referees more discretion.
The prevailing school of thought among hockey thinkers is the predatory, open-ice hit is the one causing the most damage; this rule could address it. The NHLPA, it has been reported, showed a video to its members last season illustrating instances in which potentially dangerous collisions were avoided because a player opted out; that is, he chose to respect his opponent’s safety rather than risk sending him to hospital.
The proposed “unnecessary roughness” foul would give officials the latitude to penalize predators who decide to clobber vulnerable, defenseless or unsuspecting foes.
Whatever the NHL decides, it’s time for more action, less lip-service. As the tone-setter for the game, it has an obligation to lead responsibly. The turtle pace at which it’s addressing the issue implies tacit approval of violently dangerous collisions and encourages NHL wannabes and wannastays to adopt reckless ways – and for those at lower levels to follow.
Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays.
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