If you follow the NHL at all these days, it’s pretty hard to ignore all the horrifying hits, concussions and just plain gruesome injuries that have occurred increasingly often in the past few years or the controversy they’ve caused, even a year after NHL passed a rule last year banning hits to the head.
The examples of players getting hurt or hit in horrible ways are still numerous: Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke giving Boston’s Marc Savard a concussion and New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh a nasty elbow to the head, Boston’s Zdeno Chara damaging the neck of Montreal’s Max Pacioretty, Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby suffering what turned out to be a concussion during the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day and having to sit out most of the rest of the season so far…I’m just listing the three examples that immediately came to mind for me. There are lots more where those came from.
A lot of the debate all this violence has caused in the NHL is centered around how to keep the players safe without completely altering and ruining the game. But while I appreciate players like Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta who can impact the game with “legal” hits and I do recognize that roughness has its place in hockey, I do think that the debate over violence in hockey is different from the debate over violence in football.
Football is currently being plagued by the question of whether the sport can even exist in its current form without its players suffering long-term damage. Hard tackles, quarterback sacks, players piling on top of each other in hopes of recovering fumbled footballs; these are all elements of the game that we must figure out how to preserve without hurting players, particularly in the brain and nervous systems.
To be sure, there are some of these aspects in hockey. The difficulty of removing fighting completely from the game, skirmishes caused by players trying to retrieve pucks after the referee’s whistle has blown a play dead and accidental collisions are all part of today’s game.
Where I disagree with a lot of the people engaged in the debate over fighting and hits to the head or from behind in hockey is this: I don’t think they’re all that necessary to the game. While deceased hockey players’ brains have been examined and found to contain the dreaded repeated head trauma-induced brain disease CTE, they’ve mostly been players like Bob Probert who fought a lot. I’m not saying that it can’t happen to players who weren’t known especially for fighting (cough cough Eric Lindros) but players like Probert seem to have been done in more by fighting than by the actual essential aspects of the game.
And make no mistake, fighting is NOT an essential part of the game of ice hockey itself. It is ingrained in hockey’s culture as a way for players to protect their honor, police misbehaving players, prove themselves and rally their teammates. But it is not part of the game itself. It is possible, albeit rare, for a player who leads his team in fighting majors and penalty minutes to score lots of goals but those goals were directly caused by the player shooting the puck into the net, not smashing another player into the boards or dropping the gloves with another player.
In fact, while most players get into at least one fight in their careers, most of the truly great players in hockey don’t fight or deliver questionable hits much at all. Wayne Gretzky rarely fought. For all the talk of his dubious hits, Alexander Ovechkin rarely fights and neither does Patrick Kane. Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Jaromir Jagr didn’t draw sellout crowds night after night because people wanted to see them fight, they wanted to see them score. The most frequent offenders when it comes to fighting and hitting are the fourth line players, the ones who go years and years without scoring any goals.
This is not football we’re talking about. Fights don’t influence the very course of a game the way every touchdown in football is the result of fierce tackles and aggressive blocking. I’m not saying you can walk away from hockey unscratched. That’s not true with very many sports at all and I love watching both hockey and football even with all their injuries. But at least plays with high risks of causing concussions aren’t potentially the only thing preventing the final score from being 0-0. Are they?