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Hockey: Head shots take a hit

TORONTO, Canada — Hockey, Canada’s national sport has long been a thrilling mix of grace and brawn. But brain injuries, and the death of three National Hockey League “enforcers” have many fearing that hits to the head are a growing threat to players, if not hockey itself.

The game’s most illustrious walking wounded is Sidney Crosby, the injured captain of the Pittsburg Penguins. He’s currently the NHL’s best player, and is well on his way, after only five years in the league, to becoming one of the all-time greats.

Sid the Kid is the kind of player who transforms the fortunes of franchises, boosts TV ratings and makes boys dream of lacing up skates. He became a national hero in Canada by scoring the goal that won Olympic gold against the U.S. in the last winter games.

In short, he’s the game’s best ambassador. Yet he hasn’t played or taken part in a full practice since January, when crushing hits in back-to-back games sidelined him with a severe concussion.

It’s no surprise, then, that hockey fans looked to Crosby’s press conference last week like apostles awaiting word from on high. Would he be ready to play in the NHL season opener Oct. 6? More importantly, would he ever play again?

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Crosby and his doctors couldn’t give definitive answers to either question. Fears remain that he’ll join the ranks of other distinguished players — such as Eric Lindros, Pat Lafontaine and Keith Primeau — whose careers were cut short by attacks to the head.

Crosby’s doctor predicted he would one day play, but offered no timeline. Asked if there’s a possibility his career is over, Crosby smiled and said, “It’s a pretty slight one.”

On one point, he was unequivocal: The NHL should ban and punish all body blows to the head, including those that are unintentional.

“At the end of the day I don’t think there’s a reason not to take them out,” he said. “Whether it’s accidental or not accidental, you have to be responsible out there.”

A University of Calgary study, conducted for the NHL and released in April, found that 559 concussions were reported during regular season games from 1997 to 2004 — an average of 80 concussions a year. Some experts believe that average has since grown.

Yet the NHL has been reluctant to deal with the causes of brain injuries, fearful that restrictions on body blows would reduce the game’s crowd-pleasing, rough-and-tumble play.

The game’s deeply ingrained culture of machismo is another barrier. In the late 1800s, hockey violence was seen as a way of developing a sense of masculinity in a Canadian society deemed too soft and effeminate, according to a study on the history of hockey violence. In 1905, when a player was clubbed to death on the ice by an opponent, the defence lawyer in the ensuing trial told the court: “A manly nation requires manly sports.”

It wasn’t until 1959, after countless broken noses, that an NHL goalie wore a facemask for the first time. Helmets didn’t become mandatory until twenty years later. And the league didn’t have a rule punishing body blows to the head until the start of last season.

Rule 48 came after several outrageous head shots, including one in March last year, when notorious repeat-offender Matt Cooke of Pittsburg blindsided Boston’s Marc Savard, causing a concussion that triggered the end of Savard’s career. Cooke wasn’t penalized.

The new rule penalized blindsided hits aimed at the head. Hits to the head from the front remained legal, the (twisted) logic being that if a player gets a brain injury from a hit he should have seen coming, he has only himself to blame.

The result was confusion, and more players being taken off the ice with concussions. Then came the deaths of three enforcers — the New York Rangers’ Derek Boogaard of an alcohol and drug overdose in May, and Vancouver’s Rick Rypien and the Nashville’s Wade Belak by suicide in the summer. Many observers noted that hockey fistfights can lead to concussions, a symptom of which is depression.

In March, Boston University’s School of Medicine released the results of tests on the brain of Bob Probert, a former NHL enforcer who died in 2010 at the age of 45. Probert had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repetitive trauma to the brain. Probert was in more than 200 fights during his 16 seasons in the NHL. He suffered more than a dozen concussions.  

Also in March, after Boston Bruins’ Zdeno Chara drilled Montreal Canadien Max Pacioretty’s head against the glass, at least one NHL sponsor was sickened by the scene. Air Canada, which flies all six Canadian NHL teams and five U.S. teams, wrote to the league demanding it take player safety more seriously.

In June, NHL management tweaked Rule 48, making any intentional hit to the head illegal. But “the circumstances of the hit,” including whether the player slammed put himself in a “vulnerable position,” could make it legal. 

Crosby and many others want a zero tolerance approach to head shots, whether intentional or not. In a recent plea for the NHL to do more, Hall of Fame Goalie Ken Dryden put it succinctly: “It is time to stop being stupid.”

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