Is the NHL's Lack of Respect to Blame for the Slew of Concussions?

Brad EnnisContributor IIIFebruary 28, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 23:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Head Coach Dan Bylsma of the Pittsburgh Penguins listen as the U.S. National Anthem is sung before a game against the St. Louis Blues on November 23, 2011 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Blues won 3-2.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The NHL’s dreaded “C” word is as polarizing a topic as the shootout among the league’s fans.

Concussions are an unavoidable consequence in any full-contact sport. Concussions have been a part of the game for many years. It is only recently that the debate around the cause of concussions has escalated.  

Head injuries are at the forefront of every full-contact sport, be it football, boxing, or, of course, hockey. The short term effects of concussions are easily recognizable. Headaches, neck strain, dizziness, fatigue and nausea are among the many symptoms that a concussion can induce.

It’s the long-term effects, the unknown ramifications of suffering multiple head injuries, that has led to the need for many leagues to consider strict regulations to help prevent or minimize the number of head injuries that are incurred.

The NHL’s biggest hurdle for marketing the game, especially in the United States, is the marketability of its superstars: Sidney Crosby, Marc Savard, Chris Pronger, Marc Staal, Milan Michalek.

All these players have suffered recent, and in some cases devastating concussions. How does a professional sport market its superstars if it can’t keep its superstars in the game?

The NHL has put in many rules in the seasons since the lockout to help curb the rash of concussions the league’s top players have suffered. Suspensions and fines for head shots have helped to show the league is serious about dishing out punishment, but it has hardly done anything to prevent hits to the head.

Philadelphia Flyers beat writer Tim Panaccio interviewed Flyers chairman Ed Snider on what he thinks about the way the game is played today. Snider has been in the game since he first brought a franchise to Philadelphia in 1967. He has seen the evolution of the game in its many forms.

Snider points to the respect the players have for one another for the biggest reason behind the NHL’s concussion epidemic. According to Snider, “In the old days… I think players respected each other more. They grow up now in junior with these masks and so forth and hit up high. It’s a different game. Obviously, it’s a very serious problem.”

Former NHL goaltender and current St. Louis Blues executive John Davidson agrees with Snider’s assessment. “The speed of the’s so much faster than when I played,” Davidson said. “The equipment is so hard and the players don’t respect each other as much as before.”

The concussion debate almost always morphs into an argument for fighting in the game. Snider has his opinions on fighting as well. He is an advocate for the need for enforcers in the game.

As Snider notes, “maybe there is not as much respect because we don’t have the kind of policeman we used to have in the old days. There had to be respect, or you paid a price.”

Respect in the NHL is a funny thing, but you certainly can’t argue with Snider’s sentiments. In the “old days” that Snider talks about, if you went after a star player, you could bet your life on your opponent’s biggest, meanest, toughest guy coming after you to make you pay for what you had just done.

In today’s NHL this scenario is rare at best. Most of the time, taking out a star player brings more reaction from your opponent's fanbase than his teammates. Unfortunately for the game, it’s the cleanest hits that draw the most attention from vengeance seeking “enforcers” who are rarely ever the team’s designated enforcer.

The days of Dale Hunter and Tie Domi playing bodyguard for Peter Bondra or Mats Sundin are well behind us. Nowadays, the league will slap you with a fine or a suspension.

Missed playing time and a lighter wallet may hurt even the highest paid players, but it hurts a great deal less that repeated fists to the face from an NHL heavyweight.

When players know those fists won’t be looking for them, then second thoughts don’t rush through his head before delivering an elbow to an opponent’s jaw. All they are thinking is hit or be hit. Today’s NHL holds few consequences for violators of the league’s once-sacred unwritten code of conduct.

Unless the league does something to encourage on-ice policing by its own players, no amount of fines or suspensions is going to restore the respect that players have lost for one another.