Playing hockey in Canada you are three times more likely to suffer a spinal cord injury than playing football in the U.S.
As an Operations Manager for a large trucking firm I am responsible for both the productivity of our workers and their well being. A large part of my responsibility is to ensure that the work is done in a timely and efficient manner while ensuring that everyone goes home safe at the end of the night.
I signed on for that when I took the job and take pride in the steps taken to ensure safety in the work place can be achieved while maintaining a high level of productivity.
It would be easy to take the governor off our highway trucks and allow them to drive 110 km/hr on the highway. The same would be true of the forklifts on our warehouse floor.
I do choose to have our highway trucks governed at 97km/hr because I feel that the safety of doing so trumps the benefit of letting the truck run at 110km/hr.
To apply this standard to the NHL I sometimes wonder who is looking out for the safety of the players. They are workers in this scenario and the NHL seems content to let them police themselves as far as safety goes and I fear this is a terrible miscalculation on their part.
If the players shouldn’t police themselves then who should the responsibility fall to? Surely the NHLPA is there to protect its players and ensure they are safe.
As much as that may sound like it should be the case history has proven that the NHLPA has less concern for the well-being of their members than even the NHL.
Here is a look at the history of safety in the National Hockey League and how the NHL and the NHLPA have failed to work to ensure the safety of their workforce.
What you will find is that often the League doesn’t look to cover safety until someone dies or his seriously injured by the shortcoming of their safety measures.
The first helmet in the NHL was worn by George Owen of the Boston Bruins back in 1928. It wasn’t until 1979 that the NHLPA finally mandated the use of helmets to its members. Even that mandate allowed players to continue to not wear helmets providing they signed a waiver and already had been drafted into the NHL prior to that year.
Craig MacTavish would go on to hold the distinction of last player to play a game in the NHL without a helmet.
The NHL had wanted to bring helmets into the game dating back to the 1930’s, however the NHLPA fought the move based on the wishes of the players to continue to not wear a helmet.
The turning point in the helmet debate was most certainly the on-ice death of Bill Masterson while playing for the St. Louis Blues in 1968.
Masterson was body checked by a pair of players from the Oakland Seals and his head crashed into the ice. Masterson died of his injuries at a nearby hospital after doctors had worked for 30 hours to try and save him.
Masterson’s death led to several high profile players putting helmets on that season and by the time the NHLPA finally gave its approval for the rule change almost 70 percent of NHL players were already playing with a helmet.
The introduction of the helmet into the NHL game was not a triumphant march towards safety but rather an 11 year delayed reaction to a player’s death and an off-ice acknowledgement that players were much safer with a helmet than they were without it.
The fact that only 30 percent of the league was still playing without one by this point only proves that the move came too late by the people upstairs and it had very little to do with protecting the players.
On March 11, 2000 Bryan Berard nearly lost the use of his eye after Marian Hossa of the Ottawa Senators clipped him in the eye with his stick on the follow through of the shot.
Since the injury occurred during the follow through of a normal hockey action there was no penalty on the play.
The next two years Bryan Berard would endure seven operations on his eye and through use of a contact lens restore his vision to 20/400, the league minimum standard which would allow him to complete an unimaginable comeback from the accident.
This season the Boston Bruins alone have lost two players to injury because errant hockey sticks clipped them in or around the eye.
In both situations it appears the players dodged a bullet but that scene of a bloodied Bryan Berard just wont go away each time a player has a near miss.
The calls for mandatory visors were the loudest right after the Bryan Berard injury. At the time it appeared likely that he would lose his eye and almost certain that he had lost his career.
Perhaps the fact that Berard was able to beat the very long odds and get back to NHL—a feat that earned him the Bill Masterson trophy for perseverance—actually turned out to be a negative in that it quieted the calls for mandatory visors.
Once again the NHLPA refused to make changes based on a near miss and as a result countless players have continued to have near misses ever since—Micheal Ryder and Petteri Nokelainen of Boston being the latest but almost certainly not the last.
The saddest part of the discussion about visors stems from two facts that cannot be disputed.
The first is that the NHL has an easy out when it comes to enforcement. Every single player that enters the NHL does so having played their entire junior career with a visor. The fact that they remove it when they arrive in the NHL based on some notion that they are less of a man if they wear one is absurd.
The second fact that screams for attention on this issue is the fact that no player wearing a visor has ever suffered an eye injury while playing in the NHL. That certainly isn’t to say that it’s impossible but the odds are reduced to a statistical improbability.
The NHL has gone on record stating they are pushing mandatory visors but they cannot get it past the NHLPA to implement.
Here the NHLPA could lead the charge to protect its players and mandate the use of visors but again they seem to waiting for something terrible to happen before they will move into action.
Imagine for a moment that someone hit you in the jaw with a hammer. While it might seem like an extreme comparison, a legal NHL elbow pad these days can be made of anything from carbon fiber to hard shell plastic.
During the 2002 season Kyle Mclaren unleashed a vicious elbow to the head of Richard Zednik. Mclaren was wearing a carbon fibre elbow pad at the time of the hit.
The league attempted to ban such elbow pads for the upcoming 2003 season. The NHLPA fought the rule change and it never saw the light of day.
To this day players are still dressed in body armor that has the potential to seriously injury given the pace of an NHL hockey game.
While the number of reported concussions continue to rise each year, the NHLPA and NHL seem content with examining the issue while ultimately doing nothing to prevent them.
The primary cause of concussions in the NHL is a blow to the head. While I would never advocate that the NHL needs to instruct players not to be aggressive, they do need to consider protecting players that are in a vulnerable position and restricting the hardness of shoulder pads and elbow pads.
The NHL seems to get this but the NHLPA still refuses to consent to changes in equipment.
The NHLPA further has this all wrong when you consider that in the case of Patrice Bergeron and Randy Jones. Jones rammed Bergeron into the boards from behind driving his head into the glass.
The NHLPA was fighting the suspension of Jones even though his actions nearly crippled another one of its members. Randy Jones ended up with a two game suspension but I wonder where the NHLPA member fighting for Bergeron was.
The Hockey Stick
The primary tool in the game of hockey and the weapon of choice for most is the hockey stick. While much in hockey has evolved in the last 100 years perhaps nothing has changed more dramatically than the hockey stick.
What began with Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita when they curved the first hockey stick, to Wayne Gretzky and his shiny aluminum Easton has culminated in today’s graphite composite hockey stick.
The move from wooden sticks to graphite has done wonders for the slap shot of every single player in the NHL. It has also done wonders for the stick companies that produce them.
They give these sticks away to the players in the NHL and then turn around and sell the brands to the kids in minor hockey at $200-$400 a stick. The wooden stick has become obsolete with this new stick and every player is now capable of unleashing a slapper with Al McInnis type velocity.
My rhetorical question would have be—is this such a good thing? The speed that these players are shooting the puck at is starting to get excessive.
There is the argument to be made that these sticks increase scoring and help combat the excessive goalie equipment. Unfortunately, neither of these theories holds any water.
The composite sticks are considerably less accurate, which makes picking your spots much harder as evidence by the number of NHL caliber players that can’t hit the net on a clear cut breakaway these days.
While the number of goals scored because of the faster shots might balance out against the number goals not scored because the shooter missed the net might be a relevant question, I believe that the increase in scoring had more to do with the post lockout enforcement of the rules than the composite hockey stick.
This is clearly evident as the scoring went up after the lockout, even though players have been using these sticks since late 90’s.
If Baseball and Golf can regulate the equipment in use by its players you would think that the NHL would be capable and willing to do the same.
With the sticks, I believe the league is so preoccupied with increasing goal scoring that they refuse to mandate wooden hockey sticks.
The players for their part prefer the composite sticks but to be fair if you gave the rest of the PGA a club and told them that with that club they could out-drive Tiger, I bet they would be more than happy to make the switch.
It’s in their best interest to use the composite stick and as a result they are once again the last people that should be policing the standards for equipment.
I believe that NHL is a solid product and the game of hockey is currently in very good shape. The influx of young talent is incredible and along with the new rules and salary system the gap between the teams has narrowed considerably.
I do fear that the NHL and the NHLPA have be negligent in their duty to protect their players. These players are the backbone of their product and they owe them better.
In no other industry would we allow workers to put themselves at risk based on individual preference and for the sake of increasing the entertainment value.
The NHL and NHLPA can create all the committees and sub-committees that they want to with regards to safety but I feel that in this regard the best thing to do would be to take a hard stance.
The NHL needs to embrace its role as the caretaker of the product. If the NHL were to enact hard and fast rules about the equipment that is required to play in their league the players would be forced to adopt it.
People forget that players still have a choice about whether or not they will wear a helmet. The only thing that has changed is that if they choose to exercise that right and not wear one, they will simply have to find some other place to play that will allow it.
Does it not make sense for the NHL and NHLPA to get on board with the visors, sticks and pads before something bad happens to force their hand?
The game of hockey is a physical, fast-paced game where imminent injury is always likely. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t examine taking some off the needless risk out of the game.
In the real world the safety of the worker is always paramount and the company has a responsibility to that worker to ensure a safe workplace. It time the NHL stopped hiding behind the NHLPA’s inaction and started enforcing change in the name of safety.
The players have been calling the shots in this area for far too long and someone is going to pay for it. The sad truth is that when that day comes, people will write about how the player knew the risks and its all a part of the game.
But should it be?
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