Mar 7, 2013; Newark, NJ, USA; Buffalo Sabres left wing Tyler Ennis (63) and New Jersey Devils center Travis Zajac (19) get into fight during overtime at the Prudential Center. New Jersey Devils defeat the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 in shootout. Mandatory Credit: Jim O

Why The NHL Department of Player Safety Is Going To Get a Player Killed

 

Mar 6, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA; Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Michael Stone (29) checks Anaheim Ducks center Brandon McMillan (64) into the boards at the Honda Center. The Ducks defeated the Coyotes 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll admit it: I love the sport of hockey, but I hate 99% of the fighting that goes on within it.  Yes, there are times when a fight is necessary – say, when your goalie is laid out from behind by a punk who had no reason to initiate contact with him in the first place – but you can say the same in any sport.  I have no problems with hockey being a physical game; players get hit, and sometimes they take offense.  The same is true in baseball, basketball, and football – physical, competitive sports will raise tempers every once in a while.  In my opinion, however, most of the fighting in hockey is unnecessary . . . but I could overlook it, if it was not for the fact that allowing fighting to occur in the NHL is just one of the symptoms of a much larger problem: the fact that the NHL truly doesn’t care about the safety of its players, which makes the Department of Player Safety the punchline to the question that no one in the NHL wants to hear.

Let’s start with the fighting, which will make me public enemy number one for a little bit.  Quick: name another sport in which you can deliberately throw a punch during a game and still be allowed to play for the remainder of that contest.  Don’t hurt yourself: the answer is none.   Even American football, one of the most violent team sports you can play, will toss a player who deliberately throws a punch at another player out of the game, and probably suspend him for another game, to boot.  The NBA, NFL, and MLB do not tolerate fighting in an effort to both keep players safe, and to maintain a favorable public image (which is obviously the number one reason for trying to curb fighting within these sports).  The NHL penalizes a player for fighting yes, but rarely ejects players simply for engaging in a bout o’fisticuffs, and even more rarely suspends players for such behavior.  As a matter of fact, there are professional hockey players who have made an entire career out of only being able to throw their bodies around and fight, which makes hockey the only team sport that I can think of in which you can have no real skill at playing the game and still find gainful employment!  (And even if you can point out examples of me being wrong, that doesn’t make it right.)

Don’t hate me too much, though; I have already said I could live with the fighting, because very few of these fights result in any sort of serious injury.  But like I said before, the very fact that fighting is allowed, and is even encouraged, should be your first warning sign: players getting hurt doesn’t bother the NHL.  Your second, much larger warning sign, is how the NHL handles players who knowingly initiate contact that is unnecessary, and which could result in injuries, careers cut short . . . or worse.  Watch the following video, if you can stomach the sight of a man being paralyzed:

The injured player in that video suffered permanent spinal paralysis.  Career, and life as this player knew it, over.

Now, compare that hit to the one below:

I realize that the first video contains a more violent collision – clearly –  but it is the same type of reckless, unnecessary physical contact that Patrick Kaleta inflicted on Brad Richards in the second video.  The reason Richards wasn’t hurt has everything to do with the fact that he had not built up a full head of steam, and nothing to do with Kaleta’s decision-making skills.  Had Richards been going faster, would Kaleta have still cross-checked him?    Hard to say, but no matter how much Sabres fans want to say Richards over-reacted, or should have known it was coming, it’s a dirty and foolish play.  And how did the NHL Department of Player Safety react?  By suspending Kaleta for five games, only slightly more painful than a slap on the wrist.  The worst part of all of this is that whether or not a player was injured is factored into the Department of Safety’s decision!  The fact that Richards got up should not have, in any way, shape or form, influenced Brendan Shanahan . . . but it did, which leads me to believe that as long as players don’t have to be carried off of the ice on a stretcher, the Department of Player Safety will continue to hand out soft suspensions to players who perform these types of hits.  It literally may take an NHL player getting paralyzed, or heavens forbid something worse, for the game to get serious about these entirely dirty plays that are only used by players who are either cheap-shot artists, or who got beat on a play and lash out in frustration.

Using an example of a player who was paralyzed highlights the “What if?” section of this post, but what about the sort of injuries that happen all the time, such as head injuries and concussions?  Surely the NHL is serious about reducing the amount of head injuries, right?  Uhhhhhh . . . .

The guys on NBC Sports wanted to tell me that the contact you see in that video (Wayne Simmonds hitting Tyler Ennis) was a clean hit.  Sure, if using your arm at the end of the check to drive the player’s upper body toward the glass is legal.  Simmonds got nothing for this assault on Ennis, but later in the game Luke Schenn got called for boarding when he drove Nathan Gerbe face-first into the glass.  Both Ennis and Gerbe were clearly hurt after those hits, and Ennis never returned to the game after his.  How seriously were these hits taken by Shanahan?  Do the math: two overly-violent, entirely unnecessary cases of players being rammed into the glass = one 2-minute minor penalty and no fines or suspensions handed out after the fact.  That ought to scare players the next time they think about trying to scramble another guy’s eggs for him!

I love hockey.  It’s a wonderful, fast-paced sport that my entire family and I love to watch.  My seven year-old son has been playing it for three years now, and my two year-old is probably going to begin playing it next winter.  I don’t mind the physical nature of the game, but I have to say that we just finished a stretch of three youth tournaments in four weekends in which we witnessed 12 of the most hard-fought, exciting, and entertaining hockey games that we have ever seen.  No kids fought, no kids were injured, and the physical play was limited to kids bumping as they fought for the puck on the boards and the occasional collision you get when kids don’t have their heads up.   They played hard, but clean.  I don’t want to see a game with no hitting, and I know you’re going to have injuries in a full-contact sport.  There’s no reason why the NHL Department of Safety cannot adopt a hard-line stance against boarding, cross-checking, launching oneself into the air right as they go to hit a player, following through a check by lifting your arms into a player’s face – the list goes on.   We shouldn’t have to wonder what it will take in order to get the NHL to clean up the dirty parts of the game; we’ve already seen what it will take, so now the question is simply, “Why isn’t it getting done?”

 

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