Why It's Time for NHL to Dramatically Change Its Player Safety Stance

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Why It's Time for NHL to Dramatically Change Its Player Safety Stance
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Vice president of NHL Player Safety Brendan Shanahan meets with reporters during the 2011 Hall of Fame Induction ceremony.

The lockout is now an afterthought. The regular season is in full swing. Alas, the NHL is playing doctor to its problems.

Hardly so.

A dark cloud looms large over the league—one that could cause great turmoil down the road, a problem too big for these practitioners to mend.

The NHL has become the laughingstock of professional sports when it comes to player safety, and it doesn’t appear the league is going to alter its stance.

To the average fan, it would seem inevitable for the league to harness this mess of a situation by clamping down on blows to the head. 

Head injuries—more so concussions—have sidelined a number of players already season. And, for some strange reason, the league continues to look the other way instead of dishing out hefty suspensions and fines to the perpetrators.

It’s not as if this is a laughing matter worth a slap on the wrist. No, the results of these criminal acts can threaten a player’s career, if not their life.  

The completely delirious were under the belief that Raffi Torres was given a hefty suspension after delivering a late blow to the head on Chicago’s Marian Hossa during the playoffs last April. On paper, yes, the suspension seemed appropriate—at the time.  

But after Torres’ appeal, commissioner Gary Bettman caved, and lowered the severity to 21 games, four fewer than what Torres was originally dealt.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announces the start of the 2013 regular season, Jan. 9.

That’s absurd. Not to mention, Torres is a repeat offender. His hit on Hossa wasn’t a clean hockey play. It was criminal. Torres left his feet and slammed his left shoulder into Hossa, who then bounced his head off the ice and lay motionless for minutes.

Bettman issued a firm statement regarding Torres’ suspension in July.

“This type of on-ice conduct cannot and will not be tolerated in the National Hockey League,” Bettman said in a statement, courtesy of USA TODAY. “We hope and expect that the severity of this incident, and the league’s response to it, will help prevent any similar incident occurring in the future.”

Bettman’s response was bleak, to say the least. Since Torres’ suspension, Bettman and player disciplinary chief Brendan Shanahan have done little to modify the league’s stance on player safety.  

Has Shanahan passed out a few mild penalties this season? Yes. Though, for the most part, his desk has been rather clean.  

The time for the NHL to change its stance on this pressing issue is now. Too many players have already suffered concussions or other head-related injuries this season alone.

Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog missed 11 games after taking a blow from San Jose’s Brad Stuart, Jan. 26. No suspension or fine.

Carolina’s Jeff Skinner—the 2011 Rookie of the Year—is out indefinitely after being blindsided by Toronto’s Mark Fraser, Feb. 14. No suspension or fine.

Columbus’ Artem Anisimov took a blow to the chin from Detroit’s Kyle Quincey, and was taken off on a stretcher, Feb. 21. No suspension or fine.

Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher suffered a concussion after being walloped by Philadelphia’s Luke Schenn, Feb. 16.

St. Louis’s highly touted rookie Vladimir Tarasenko was placed on injured reserve after taking a blow to the chin from Colorado’s Mark Olver, Feb. 20. No suspension or fine.

And Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin was slammed into the boards by Florida’s Erik Gudbranson, Feb. 22, and is dealing with concussion-like symptoms. No suspension or fine.

Notice the trend? It’s preposterous on every level.

In Tarasenko’s case, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Rule 48.1 states than an illegal check to the head must show an intent to target the head, and the league said after its review that Olver did not demonstrate an intent to do so.

Blues’ coach Ken Hitchcock scorned at the league’s response.

“It’s a blow to the head,” Hitchcock said, according to the Post-Dispatch. I don’t care how it got there, whether it was a legit hockey play … it was a blow to the head. I don’t give a damn about the rule. I’m just saying form a young player’s standpoint, those are the harsh lessons that young players end up having to learn.”

Blues’ forward Andy McDonald hopes the league will alter its stance on the way it deals with such injuries in the future.

“You can still have a physical game, an intense game,” McDonald said, courtesy of the Post-Dispatch. “It’s too dangerous…the health implications on those hits are too severe. It’s not worth it.”

In terms of the NHL’s logic, or lack there of, it’s acceptable to level a player’s head as long as the head wasn’t “targeted.”

Comical, really.

Shouldn’t these injuries result in a red flag somewhere within the depths of league headquarters? Heavens, this is ridiculous.

History has a good tendency to repeat itself—perhaps even look into the future.

Revert back to 2010 when former enforcer Bob Probert died. For 16 years, Probert dropped the gloves, fighting over 200 times during his NHL career. Probert’s on-ice legacy was with his fists. Though, his hidden legacy was in his brain, where researchers found chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The league surely remembers 2011—the worst summer in history—when three former enforcers died.

Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien died in the span of four months.

Belak, 35, was found dead in his home and suffered depression, according to ESPN.com. Boogaard, 28, was found dead in his home after consuming a toxic combination of painkillers and alcohol. Rypien was found dead in his home and dealt with multiple stints of depression.

Do more players have to suffer such serious injuries or even die before the league takes a grown-up approach to its player safety? Or are we going to be submitted to such foolishness until it’s too late.

The day when players begin filing lawsuits against the league is on the horizon. It’s time for the league change.  

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