NHL Safety: Is the League Missing the Mark?

Derek ScarlinoCorrespondent IOctober 22, 2011

Anybody seen Andrew Ladd around lately?

You'd definitely notice him, though you might not recognize him thanks to facial injuries sustained from a puck during a recent game against the Ottawa Senators. For his next game, Ladd is reportedly planning to don a visor for the first time

It's learning from mistakes that separates some from those who end up in those clever Darwin Awards books. Ladd appears to have heeded the lesson: pucks hurt.

I was born in the early 1980's, so I'm quite accustomed to seeing helmeted hockey players. Thanks to my Ranger-fan father, I do recall Craig MacTavish raising the Stanley Cup in 1994 as the last player in the NHL to do so while never having worn a helmet as a pro.

In both the CHL and AHL, visors on helmets are mandatory. Why not the NHL?

Yes. I realize that grown-ass men play in the NHL and they're taking on a known risk, but it's a minute cosmetic detail which doesn't mess with the actual game itself and can prevent serious injuries—especially to the eyes.

I'm a Leafs fan, so I was watching live when Mats Sundin had his orbital bone shattered by a puck that was sailing through the air on a clear a few years back. Sundin rarely had injury problems and to see the big man drop that quickly, with such a look of agony on his face, made me shudder. Hard. Thinking about it still does.

The advocacy of visors may seem a bit hypocritical from a guy who doesn't wear one in local rec leagues. I haven't had health care for several years either, added on to not wearing neither a cage nor a visor.

Sue me.

I get on the ice once, maybe twice a week. Plus sticks aren't allowed above the waist, so that effectively means no slappers either.

Mats, you've looked better.
Mats, you've looked better.

I've taken a puck to the bare face before. Not fun. It resulted from a wrist shot that ricocheted off of a goalies blocker straight into my cheek. I got lucky. Sure, a visor wouldn't have protected me, but had it hit higher, on a less fleshy part of my face, I would have been oozing blood all over as opposed to just spitting a bit out of my mouth.

I had heard the arguments for mandatory visors before then, and on that day, the lesson literally hit home.

Has anyone seen Taylor Fedun around? Is he on crutches or in a pimped-out wheelchair?

Breaking your femur is a novelty. It's the strongest bone in your body, and Fedun's broke from the force of crashing into the boards to beat an icing call. Injuries from touch icing are not rare.

For all of his uncouth babbling, Hockey Night In Canada "analyst" Don Cherry makes some strong points on player safety. Visors. No-touch icing. Reductions on the size and hardness of pads. 

How many times have you seen Cherry's montage of players crashing into the endboards and not getting up after? All for trying to beat out an icing call.

How many times has a race to the puck gotten you out of your seat? Not often, huh?

How many times have you cringed at the injuries resulting from these races? Probably more times than the actual race to the puck ever mattered to you.

When the NHL addresses player safety, however, these issues are overlooked in favor of making fighting and hitting safer.

What makes touch-icing stink all the more is that the players want the rule changed too. Player polls for years, as well as the Twitter storm following Fedun's injury, confirm this. Tsk, tsk. 

Fedun in happier, two-intact-femurs days.
Fedun in happier, two-intact-femurs days.

Personally, I don't think it's great for hockey that concussions from head shots are taking young, star players like Sidney Crosby and Marc Staal (to name a few) out of the game.

Action should be taken there, but I don't agree with the method that the NHL has chosen. I'm in favor of removing the instigator rule and allowing the players to police the game more for themselves.

That means players like Matt Cooke will have to answer for their actions immediately—on ice, during the game. And other players, like Matt Cooke, might be less inclined to raise an elbow to an opponents head due to the repercussions. And then there are guys like Matt Cooke, who keep up their antics because the league has made a rule against players taking immediate action against other players for dirty hits.

It annoys me that the culture of hitting has become so shaky, and so grey, that players who deliver good, clean hits are having to fight immediately after them.

Dion Phaneuf is not known for dirty hits. Big hits, yes. Dirty hits, no. Yet, he regularly finds himself having to defend himself from another player looking to go fist city all over his shit. Stupid. And I feel that this is what the league has become in the wake of instituting the instigator rule.

You can't nip problems in the bud. You have to wait until someone like, oh, Matt Cooke goes for your mate's knees or head. Then you might be able to get at him for a few rabbit punches, but the damage is done.

I for one would reconsider dirty plays if I knew I had to expect players coming at me left and right the next time I saw that team.

As far as hitting goes, however, why not take an approach similar to lacrosse? Nothing from behind the shoulder. This is by far the most vulnerable position from which to be hit. Why crack down on hits that come from the front, or from the side which are still clearly on the player to avoid? At the end of the day, you've still got to keep your head up. That's just hockey. 


Hockey is about unofficial codes of conduct. They aren't perfect, but there's enough of a coercive psychological effect in place that does promote varying degrees of fair play and organization. It's the reason why you don't punch someone after they go down in a fight, and also why Sidney Crosby is the most boring professional athlete in the world.

In my imagination, Alex Ovechkin is sitting next to me as I write. And I just high-fived him.

It also seems that the NHL refuses to admit that the changes to play since the lockout, while achieving the goal of faster play, have led to problems due to the size of the ice. Players are also hitting each other with more momentum.

Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has suggested a revision to the since limited abilities of post-lockout NHL defensemen to play their position in order to prevent injury: the bear hug. Rather, allowing them to wrap up forwards while taking them into the boards as opposed to following them, being mindful not to impede on them, only to, seconds later, crash their entire bodies into them at full speed.

"Okay. Thanks, Burkie. So, next up, let's see a show of hands for bigger nets again..."

I would love to be present at a board of directors meeting to promote the idea of bigger ice to reduce congestion on the ice and maybe some of the more dangerous hits as well. Why would I love to do this? Only to see if I'm right about my prediction of then being laughed out of the room and being able to say, "Told ya' so!"

They have money to make after all.

What I also do not get, because much of the rule changes in the NHL have been enacted to increase viewership -- in the United States.

"No-touch icing? Mmm, no."
"No-touch icing? Mmm, no."

Ah, yes, reducing perceived violence, on the ice, in order to sell it to the most violent country on the planet.

As an American, I can say, we may indeed be violent, but we don't necessarily want to be reminded of it. So, NHL, keep feeding our cognitive dissonance, and changing your game for us.

At the end of the day, it's about money and ratings for the NHL. And that sucks.