2015 NHL Playoffs: League Needs Consistent Rule Enforcement
The sport of hockey needs to figure out if it wants to be the NHL we watch in October, or the NHL we watch in April, otherwise the risks may begin to outweigh the rewards.
Every October, the NHL season begins, and it provokes all of the images we love about hockey. Whether the dainty barbarian dangles of a Jamie Benn. The singular glove save of a goaltender doing his best Gretzky 3D hockey impression of a brick wall. Or the crackerjack wrister of Tyler Seguin. Of course, we love those oddball moments that inspire a Vizzini like reaction too. Like watching Travis Moen, with a career average of .08 goals per game, do a successful Tyler Seguin impression on a penalty shot.
Then April rolls around. Suddenly the metaphors for hockey civilization begin to break down. And the players trade in their Rudy quotes for a copy of Sun Tzu's greatest hits. The veil of a hopeful Gordon Bombay turning a bunch of rejects into actual hockey players gets lifted in favor of a seatbelt, and weaponry fit for Mad Max on Fury Road. It's a jarring shift, no matter its virtue as entertainment.
I won't pretend to know when this attitude started. Maybe you can point the finger at the year 1936, when the Montreal Maroons and the Detroit Red Wings required almost six periods of overtime and three tons of snow shoveled to clean the ice to determine a winner in the Stanley Cup Finals. It's the kind of story that coaches probably love to tell to remind players how unforgiving the sport can be, and how strong they have to be to endure. Whatever the case, the attitude is a big part of what makes the NHL unique.
It's tradition. But traditions are not arguments in and of themselves. And some traditions can be downright destructive, held up only by the nostalgia of historical sentiment, and the ignorance of their costs.
Last season, Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins did his best to give Detroit defenseman Danny DeKeyser a carbon fiber vasectomy. He was fined, albeit modestly. Jared Fagerberg at boston.com defended the act in a piece that argues its point with the kind of blunt force trauma Lucic would appreciate.
Lucic doesn't exactly have a Lady Byng reputation, but giving someone the business when the ref is up ice is all in the game. One thing is for sure - DeKeyser will be playing with his head on a swivel when No. 17 is on the ice, and that's an important advantage when your team is struggling to find the score sheet.
Who cares about testicular mayhem when a Stanley Cup is on the line? The costs don't have to assume the form of Lucic's sadism though. Sometimes they can be more elegant. Like Brent Seabrook's charging major on David Backes. Which he justified as "trying to make a play". This playoff season, there's been more than its share of frozen furor, and players just 'trying to make a play'. Like Niklas Kronwall on Nikita Kucherov. PK Subban on Mark Stone. Clayton Stoner on Marcus Kruger. Alexander Ovechkin on Thomas Hickey. Tom Wilson on Lubomir Visnovsky. Which already has its own Jim Ross-O-Vision. And players aren't the only people affected by this tradition of just bleed playoff hockey. Just as the players and media are affected (the Canadian Institutes of Health Research has even helped study the lopsided coverage on brain injury in hockey), so too are the officials. James Mirtle noted officials have been wearing their whistles like throat lozenges this year.
The league is currently dealing with a concussion lawsuit filed by 60 former NHL players. It's a narrative that I don't think has really caught on with NHL fans despite the tragic stories of players like Derek Boogaard. Perhaps because a professional player's story doesn't provide parents and viewers a kind of moral proximity.
The NHL doesn't have its own Owen Thomas, as football does; the 21 year old junior lineman from Penn who displayed the early stages of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy upon autopsy, after he hanged himself in his off campus apartment. It doesn't have its own Nathan Stiles, the 17 year old who died on the football field after his brain began to rebleed. And it doesn't have its own Austin Trenum, another 17 year old who did not have CTE, but whose suicide raises questions about how deep the concussion rabbit hole goes. Does hockey require such stories to shift away from the emphasis on playoff hockey's unique brand of 'playmaking'?
NHL players themselves have not been quiet on this front either. Former NHL player Malcolm Davis spoke out about undiagnosed concussions recently, chronicling team "protocols". A doctor was not provided, and when he couldn't play he was sent down to the minors. Now he deals with the familiar symptoms of said trauma.
Understanding concussions is a recent development in the science lexicon. Until recently concussions were simply signaled by a loss of consciousness. Now the old idea of what concussions used to be are thought of as merely proxies for the accumulation of the more "trivial" trauma. The actual process of a concussion is problematic enough. Axons in the brain are torn apart as they stretch too thin like a rubber band trying to hold a stack of baseball cards piled too thick. Then excess calcium rushes in while not enough potassium is being released. But now this process is tied to a whole network of trauma.
The links between brain injury and other conditions are as varied as Don Cherry's wardrobe. If it's not brain injury and depression it's brain injury and drug addiction. Or brain injury and Parkinson's. Now there's even a link between brain injury and ALS that has its own name, called Chronic Traumatic Encephalomyelopathy; 13% of those diagnosed with CTE also have protein patterns on the cortex consistent with Lou Gehrig's Disease.
None of this is meant to be a scare tactic. Researchers themselves are quick to point out that collectively, we have small sample sizes when it comes to concussions research, and the connections between concussions and other disorders imply correlation, not causation. But that doesn't mean hockey culture can't do its part to reverse irresponsible trends, or traditions.
Solutions when it comes to brain trauma are kind of foreign. Better helmets certainly aren't solutions. Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic famously found that the old vintage football leatherhead helmets are actually just as safe at protecting the head as anything modern technology has been able to produce since Superman was fighting fifth dimensional dwarves in the 1940's.
Instead the solution will come with a shift in the dialogue. When I don't have to watch Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick laugh at what Milan Lucic did because it's just "part of playoff hockey". Critics might think this is all a little too dramatic. What endgame am I looking for? No more fighting? No more hits? No more fun? "Go watch curling!" the guy overflowing in beer and abdomen might scream.
I'm not advocating a less physical game. Certainly components of it can go (like goon culture). As someone who continues to enjoy and cover prizefighting, a less physical game wouldn't entertain me as much personally. It's about picking an identity, and with that identity, a culture that is comfortable with necessary change. Culture is just as much a condition of events as splitting an atom. And it doesn't need people who think the problems start with Bauer. Or its commissioner, Gary Bettman, sounding eerily similar to the disgraced NFL chairman Dr. Elliot Pellman.
Either promote the game we begin watching in October, or promote the game we begin watching in April. No other sport so drastically switches its philosophy during its season. I'm interested in hockey. Adding qualifiers like 'playoff hockey' just makes me feel like I have to wear a jersey for a different sport. Let's keep the jerseys we already have so that the men and women who labor in them don't have to one day forget what it was like to represent them.