This may not be the best time to address the issue, but I feel with the Torres suspension getting handed down today, now is a good time to talk about it. I don’t want to talk about the Torres hit or suspension specifically, but rather talk about the broader issue of dealing with headshots and big hits in the modern NHL.
A lot of people aren’t happy about what the NHL is doing with regards to headshots. We’ve all heard the lines from the conservative “old-school hockey” fans: “The NHL is becoming too soft,” “The NHL is taking hitting out of the game,” etc.
What those old school hockey fans fail to take note of however, is that the entire NHL is going through a rapidly evolving culture change. Social media and knowledge about the extensive damage of brain injuries has put the NHL under pressure to take measures to promote and ensure player safety, much to the displeasure of those old-school hockey fans, who want the NHL to be nothing more than UFC on ice.
Like all sports, hockey will go through evolutionary stages. This isn’t the 1970s anymore. It's no longer the Broad Street Bullies Era, when hitting and fighting defined the game. Instead, both voluntarily and involuntarily, the NHL has become a league based around skill and speed and this has helped promote the game to what it is today. It has become a league where skill players take reign supreme and “goonery” is relegated to the back of the bus in terms of being the main force promoting the game.
Now I’m not advocating for removing hitting from the game. Far from it. I’m advocating for removing goonery. I’m advocating for taking serious discipline against repeat offenders. I’m advocating that the NHL change the mindset of players, which right now seems to be “hit without thought or consideration of a fellow players’ safety and personal health.”
Guys like Raffi Torres, Matt Cooke, Brad Marchand and a host of others, with lengthy histories of making dangerous and thoughtless hits against their peers, should not be allowed to hide behind the curtain of old-school hockey, when we know what we know today about the long-term effects of head injuries.
But its not just the goons. Duncan Keith threw a dangerous elbow at Daniel Sedin, which resulted in a concussion. James Neal and Evgeni Malkin, in their series against the Flyers, were responsible for a number of questionable hits.
My point: there’s a problem with the mindset of players in today’s NHL, largely spurred on by the old-school hockey base and their claims that hockey is a physical sport and all hits are acceptable. This mindset can only be reversed by more discipline and punishment, by officials and the NHL Department of Player Safety, and by encouraging players to actually play hockey and not preoccupy themselves with trying to be NFL linebackers.
Now this is where the conservatives will throw the claims that I’m advocating changing the game and making it soft.
My first response would be: if you want lots of hitting, watch football, that's all it is. If you want lots of fighting, watch UFC, that's all it is. Hockey should be hockey. Not some permeated, on-ice version of Grand Theft Auto.
Second, what entertainment value does watching someone being carried out on a stretcher add to the game of hockey? Does having to watch games without your favorite players add to your enjoyment? If you polled 1000 hockey fans, I wouldn’t be surprised if 990 of them responded that the NHL could do without that garbage.
NHL players sign contracts and in those contracts they consent to accept the possibility of being injured in what is a fast-paced, physical and often violent sport. But what they do not consent to is having other guys out there literally targeting them with the single goal of knocking them out of the game. They do not consent to players throwing illegal checks under the guise of making a hockey play. They do not consent to missing time with head injuries and risking damage to their long term mental and physical health.
Hockey players are human beings. Its time we remind ourselves of that. Yes they are professional athletes who get paid considerable amounts of money to play a sport, but if that money is a bribe to accept the risk of being seriously injured or even killed because we condone dangerous hits as part of the game of hockey, then we are no better than Roman citizens crowded in the Colosseum to watch gladiators die for their entertainment.
That is morally and legally wrong and irresponsible. Not to mention is just looks bad on the NHL.
Hockey is a fast and physical game. But those elements in no way should facilitate excessively dangerous hits and predatory behaviour. Hockey doesn’t need that. There is a fine line between responsible, physical hockey and goonery. My hope is that over the next few seasons the NHL will implement measures to move increasingly away from the latter towards the former, to ensure player safety and help promote the better, more enjoyable aspects of the game.
Thank you for reading. Enjoy the games tonight.