Colorado's Darcy Tucker lies on the ice after being hit by Tuomo Ruutu earlier this season. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
With another episode of the NHL’s GM meetings set to kick off today in Boca Raton, Fla., you can be sure of one thing: once again the epidemic of head shots will receive a whole lot of lip service, but not so much as a muscle twinge or batted lash of action to seriously address it.
If you’re incensed by local politicians who only lob the lamest platitudes while their constituencies crumble around them, brace yourself; you’ll need to pop thrice the normal amount of blood pressure pills to survive the attempt to understand the time-honored combination of sloth and prideful ignorance that governs hockey’s approach to progress.
Contrary to what the GMs will say today, we’re long past the “let’s send this to an investigatory committee” stage the game has claimed to be at for years now. A large segment of the hockey community has been talking about this issue for the better part of the past decade, just as it discussed how much sand was in the NHL’s entertainment engine during the dead-puck era.
Back then, the league and the puristocrats who ran it sneered down their zig-zagging, cotton-plugged schnozzes at anyone who suggested the maelstrom of clutching and grabbing was driving the sport down a dark road. And their dogma at the time utilized the same argument – i.e., ‘this is the manner by which the game was always meant to be played, and it can’t work any other way’ – as they do now with head shots.
So when the 2004-05 lockout season came and went and the game returned in a much smarter, far more fan-friendly format, the embellishments and misleadings mouthed by the dinosaurs were confirmed as such.
And now hockey faces a different, equally compelling crossroads, one underscored immediately after an Olympic tournament that exposed the hockey establishment’s propaganda department on the matter of on-ice sportsmanship and common decency.
Although we saw barely a ripple of borderline play at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, in just seven days of post-Olympic NHL action we’ve had a star player (Boston’s Marc Savard) knocked unconscious and carted off the ice after a dirty hit from Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke, as well as a worker bee (Toronto’s John Mitchell) driven out of the Leafs’ tilt against Ottawa thanks to a shoulder-to-head hit from Senators right winger Chris Neil.
Naturally, voices from both affected Northeast Division teams – including Leafs GM Brian Burke, hardly the touchiest or feeliest of hockey men – spoke with a disgusted tone after their players went down. But even the face of the league seems to have had enough.
“At some point, there’s got to be a clear indication from the league (what’s legal and what’s not) because we’ve seen this so many times now,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “You don’t like to see anyone, your own teammate or an opposing player, lay on the ice like that.”
Unfortunately, that’s where Crosby is mistaken. There is an entire subculture of hockey fans who leap to their feet each and every time a player is unnecessarily injured and proclaim unwavering pride in a sport that calculates the risk to its players and inevitably dismisses it in the name of a warped, faux militarism.
That nonsense has to be met with a cold volley of reality at every turn. And the game needs more Keith Primeaus and more Eric Lindroses – more ex-NHLers who understand the true stakes that are in play here – to do it.
Lindros fought the hockey establishment over the health of his head for almost his entire career. It was Bob Clarke & Co. always hounding him to return to the ice. It was the game’s gatekeepers who kept pushing him back through the gates when he wasn’t ready. But regardless of what you think about him as a player, it now is clear the hesitancy he and his family met the issue with was absolutely correct.
To paraphrase a politician who should be paraphrased as little as possible: when it comes to the facts about head shots, you’re either with science or you’re against it. You either accept what the smart folks in the lab coats tell you about the consequences of this outmoded game strategy, or you take your lead from the type of NHL coaches, GMs and players who never are asked to attend “Stay In School” promotional visits because, you know, they’d probably be asked to actually stay in that school.
But go ahead, NHL GMs, tell me the loss of Savard – possibly for the rest of this season, possibly forever – doesn’t hurt the game as much as a stricter enforcement of the rulebook would. Tell me Bruins fans haven’t lost something thanks to the weasels and the damage done by the tacit acceptance and encouragement of outrageous behavior.
The b.s. machine annually rolled out by the NHL and its GMs to answer the increasing outcries over reckless play may wind up fooling some people today. But it shouldn’t fool anyone with a functional memory or a “show me, don’t tell me” mentality.
Prove me wrong, GMs. Treat this problem with the urgency it demands. And if you choose not to – if you choose to allow players to continue cannibalizing their talents and decimating the quality of their post-playing lives – just don’t pretend you want it any other way.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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