NHL-NFL: A Discussion on Toughness

Chris LenzCorrespondent IMay 18, 2008

This is a conversation I've heard many times, and participated in many more times. It comes up quite regularly in sports discussions, and always seems to have the fans split down the middle. Most people side with their own sport.  Football fans choose football, hockey fans choose hockey, and basketball fans don't count because they're not part of the discussion...

The topic is simply this: Which sport is rougher and more physical, hockey or football? The fans of each sport think that their favorites are tougher than the other guys. But it goes beyond that, however. The sports have different rules that give insight in to how they view themselves.

This biggest difference in these rules is the age of draft eligibility. Players cannot be drafted into the NFL until they are at least three years removed from high school. This all but guarantees that they're at least twenty-one-years old. This would make them more physically and mentally mature than their NHL counterparts, who can be drafted at the age of eighteen and moved immediately into the league.

However, the NFL has no minor-league system to speak of, aside from college, which limits the amount of time you spend there. If an NHL player needs extra work to bulk up or toughen up, he is sent down to the minors to work and get stronger. Whereas an NFL player may very well be cut right then and there. 

These differences mean that the NFL tries to make you tougher before you enter the league, but the NHL can keep toughening you up at a higher age, making you even stronger when you do finally get called up.

On to the game. Which sport is rougher to play? Well, before we get started, I want to immediately disassociate this discussion from on-field or on-ice deaths.  These are extremely rare in sport, and even 'not-tough' sports (all sports, at a professional level, are tough) have a history of death at some point or another.  People bring up the memories of Howard Glenn and Bill Masterson, but these two are in many ways exceptions, and whose circumstances of death have been remedied (e.g. helmets).

Let's start with hockey, as I am first and foremost a hockey fan. Hockey players play on ice, which is much, much, much harder than sod. In hockey, the players are standing on razor blades and carrying ultra-light composite sticks. A man can skate much faster than he can run, which means that a full-speed collision has much more velocity on skates than on shoes.

Hockey players also have the boards, the dasher, and the glass, all of which see contact constantly throughout a game. The goal consists of unpadded
steel posts, which can easily be run into. And all this doesn't even bring up that little piece of frozen, vulcanized rubber flying around at speeds exceeding 90 miles per hour.  

All this, mind you, happens during a game where if you DO get hit, there's not necessarily a whistle. You must get up and play on without stoppage and without assistance.

Moving on to football. Football players may not move at the speed of hockey players, and they're not carrying sticks or wearing cleats. They are, however, wearing spikes, which can catch a calf or foot much more frequently than a skate can.

There's more to toughness than simply equipment used by players.

As I said, hockey players have boards. Getting checked into the boards hurts.  However, the boards act as shock absorbers. In most cases, the energy and force involved in a hit into the boards is transferred through the player getting hit into the boards themselves. This means that hits into the boards, in many ways, are
preferable to open-ice hits, that the boards cushion more than bruise. Well, in football, there are no shock-absorbing boards.  Every hit is an open-ice (well, open-field) hit.

The grass used in football stadiums isn't as hard as ice. However, it's not exactly playground-safe rubber mulch, either. It's a tough surface, and even tougher on a field made of artificial turf in lieu of grass. Considering the lack of lower-body padding used by football players, it's hard enough to hurt just the same.

At 6'9" and 277 pounds, Zdeno Chara is the largest player in the NHL. Derek Boogard is 6'7" and 270 pounds. Hal Gill is 6'7" and 250 pounds. These are big boys, but are more the exception than the rule. Most hockey players are between 5'9" and 6'4" (Even tough guys Georges Laraque and Jody Shelley are only 6'3" and 6'4" respectively).

Meanwhile, the NFL, home to players like Jonathan Ogden at 6'9" and 345 pounds, grows them much bigger. The average lineman for the NFL is bigger than the NHL's biggest players. On average, football players dwarf their hockey counterparts.

As for skating versus running. A man can skate faster than he can run, but a man on skates can't turn as quickly, and is therefore easier to avoid. A man on his feet is harder to dodge. (At the level of play seen in the NHL, stopping and turning on a dime is NOT uncommon, however, it is still faster to make such a direction change on foot.)

I had mentioned earlier that hockey hits don't necessarily mean stoppage in play. In most cases, in football it does. In hockey, tough hits into the boards, bone jarring open-ice hits, etc., look impressive, but they're NOT the main focus of the game. This can be seen in the average number of hits per game, which for an NHL team is between 20 and 30. A hockey player may play an entire game without being hit. One could watch an entire period with little physical action. 

In football, however, a hit is guaranteed on every play. From linemen hustling for position, to linebackers stopping the  run or rushing the quarterback, there WILL be a hit. Yes, they can stop and pick themselves up afterwards, but they WILL get hit. Also, an NHL hit is usually body hitting body, maybe a stick or an elbow get involved. A football player making a tackle can hit, grab, wrestler, jostle, or do almost whatever it takes to bring a man down, and getting thrown to the ground is much rougher than just getting knocked to the ice.  

So far, we have football ahead. However, I DO believe that hockey is tougher, and here's why. Hockey isn't TRYING to put up a tough image. Hockey doesn't overdo it. The league protects its players and goes on with the game. The NFL, NCAA, and other football leagues seem to desire the press and drama that accompanies injuries. In the NHL, an injured player is taken off the ice and tended to in the locker room.  After a brief stoppage to get him off the ice, play resumes.

In football, a hurt player is tended to on the field.  It seems to take forever to make any progress when there's an injury. I understand that safety comes first, but with today's technology, there's no reason that it should take so long, aside from the desire of those in charge to put the thought into the heads of those watching that "this is dangerous." The NFL and other football leagues seem to have a toughness inferiority complex, which makes them desire to show that they really ARE tough, and that injuries aren't minor (no matter how minor they happen to be). 

Oh, and hockey allows fighting.  That has to be worth something in this debate.