The rise in injuries, especially concussions, this season seems to be occurring at an alarming rate. Injuries occur in every game and most are of the minor variety that are attended to while the player sits on his bench between, shifts but there seems to be more concussions and other serious injuries than ever before.
People throughout the game are agreeing that the game is being played by bigger players who are the most skilled players in history. These players are also stronger than their predecessors. Combine bigger and stronger players with the most advanced skills the game has ever seen and you get a game that has never been played at the speed and physicality that it is today. Add it all up and you get the recipe for large bodies colliding at unprecedented speeds resulting in serious injuries.
According to NHL TV analyst Mike Milbury, body checking has increased by 40 percent since 2004. This increase was brought about by the "new rules" that dictate how the game is to be played. The speed of the game has increased immensely because the old "clutch and grab" style is no longer tolerated. Players can freely skate as fast as they can to win races for loose pucks without having an arm tugged on or having to skate through an opponent's stick in their midsection.
On the surface, a player should not need to worry about skating through such obstructions, however, those obstructions slowed a forechecker down. A defenseman racing to touch a puck to get an icing call could do so, for the most part, without worrying about being hit, which is a penalty but if the forechecking player negates the icing he can simultaneously play the body. We have seen an increase of injuries to defensemen because of this exact scenario.
Bringing back the old clutch and grab style would not be good for hockey but maybe the general managers and owners, who make up the rules committee, should look at a modified version. One where a player can somehow slow down the lead forechecker through the neutral zone. This would reduce the potential for a defenseman getting slammed into the glass and boards.
If the league does not want to see any type of method reintroduced to slow down the players then the league needs to make a modification on icing. Amateur and international rules call for automatic icing. When the puck crosses the goal line, the play is whistled dead by the linesman. Another popular TV analyst, Don Cherry, is in favor of this rule being adopted by the NHL. However, most people do not want to see that become part of the NHL game.
In that case, the change that can be made to icing calls would be to bring in the "hybrid" icing which is being used in some junior leagues. The hybrid icing rule allows for the defenseman and the forechecker to race for the puck but when the puck passes over the face off dot or an imaginary line connecting the dots, the linesman deems who will win the race. If the defenseman is winning the race, then the whistle will blow the moment the puck crosses the goal line. If the attacking forward is winning the race, the potential icing is nullified and the players can battle for the puck.
This rule is popular with players, coaches, and officials and has reduced the rate at which defensemen are getting injured where the touch icing rule, which the NHL uses, is in effect.
Milbury and others also point out that the equipment worn by today's players play a role in causing injuries. We are all for protecting players from injuries with the best equipment available but I've also been calling today's pads, suits of armor. The padding is made of hard plastic that has the potential to create an injury when a player comes into contact with it.
I'm around the same age as Milbury and (here he goes) when we played (I played college hockey,) our shoulder and elbow pads had softer coverings. We still played physically but checking and being checked did not hurt as much because we came in contact with the softer coverings. Going back to that type of equipment would certainly alleviate some of the major injuries that are occurring around the NHL.
Changes to equipment and rules will most definitely contribute to the safety of the players. This writer has felt and professed for quite some time that in order for the National Hockey League to cut down on injuries, it needs to expand. Not expand in bringing more teams into the league. That is another topic for another day.
The league needs to expand the size of the ice surface. It only makes sense. The powers that be and, indeed, most of the people who are involved at all levels of the game want to see the speed and skill the game has to offer and because of the size of today's players, the game needs to be played on the same size sheet of ice that is used in Europe, also known as, the international surface.
The average NHL sized ice sheet is 200 feet long by 85 feet wide. This was enough room when the average player was five feet, nine inches and weighed around 160 pounds but most of today's players are at, or over, six feet tall and weigh more than 200 pounds. Put them on the European sized sheet of ice that measures 200 feet long by 100 feet wide. Players such as Alex Ovechkin, Milan Lucic, Chris Pronger, Brian Boyle, and many more, need that kind of space to apply their talents. The smaller players will also take advantage of the larger surface.
Imagine the creativity and moves we would see from the likes of Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk, and Martin St. Louis.
Another positive that would come from the larger ice surface would be the reduction of fighting which always carries the potential of serious injury. In my humble opinion, fighting is a take or leave it proposition. I would rather watch a game of speed and skill over boxing on blades but we are all trying to come up with ideas to make the game safer and less fighting is one way to do it.
The reason we may never see the expansion of the ice surface is it would mean removing seats from the arenas which would result in a loss of revenue for the owners. Obviously, owners are not in the hockey business to lose money. At some point, all buildings need to be replaced. New arenas could be built with the larger ice sheet and enough seats to ensure the owners continue to increase their revenues. Over the course of several years, all buildings in the league would be built this way.
Injuries have been and always will be part of the game of hockey. They will always be part of any sport, actually. People agree it is time to take a good long look at how to reduce them in the NHL. Changing rules, modifying equipment, and increasing the size of the ice surface, will go a long way in decreasing injuries to our favorite players on the ice and keep hockey, the greatest game on earth.