One of the major changes after the NHL lockout season of 2004-2005 was the removal of the clutch-and-grab, hook-and-hold hockey that had almost dragged the NHL into professional sports oblivion. The "new NHL" was a far superior product based on speed, excitement and loads of goal scoring.
The problem with change, however, is that it often comes with unintended consequences. One of these consequences was that today's "bigger and faster" NHL player was now left unimpeded to steamroll over his opponent at full speed. Sounds exciting doesn't it?
The common wisdom is that the increase in concussions and other severe injuries is due in large part to the increase in collisions at higher speeds between bigger and faster players. It could also be that the understanding and diagnosing of concussions has increased. The truth is probably all of the above.
Another factor that is often cited is the equipment. Let's face it, NHLers now wear more body armor than a S.W.A.T. team. When you look at the shoulder pads for instance, it's hard to tell the difference between an NHL defenceman and an NFL linebacker.
Others say it's a lack of respect amongst the players that is the problem. Maybe.
It could also be that the players are fearless. The equipment is so good that the player making the hit really has no worry of getting hurt himself, and the equipment itself has become not only protection but a weapon.
There is also no fear of reprisal. The instigator rule means that a player can run his opponent into the boards from behind and the worst thing that happens is a penalty, fine or suspension. If an opposing player decides to take matters into his own hands, his team will be punished.
In any case, the recent high-profile concussion injuries to players such as Sidney Crosby has pressured the NHL to make rule changes once again. The so-called "head shots," whether intended or not, are now illegal.
OK great, right?
Not so much. Someone needs to explain to me how 6'9" Zdeno Chara is supposed to body check 5'8" Martin St. Louis and NOT hit him in the head.
It seems to me that the NHL is on a slippery slope of legislating itself into the Swedish Elite League. Don't get me wrong, the Swedish Elite League is a great league, but it's not the NHL—nor should it be.
The whole issue of head shots has predictably reignited the debate on fighting itself in the NHL, with a louder and louder contingent of the usual suspects calling for it's outright ban. These are the same voices that say Chris Pronger's near miss with his recent eye injury is further proof that the NHL needs to make visors a requirement and not an option.
From my perspective, all of this begs a question: Why are we always trying to protect NHL players from themselves?
Fortunately, I have a simple solution that can be summed up in three words:
Old. Time. Hockey.
If you asked Bobby Clarke, one of the greatest hockey players of all time, what it was like when he played, he would tell you that players didn't run each other into the boards from behind or skate into one another at full speed in open ice.
It wasn't because they had more respect for each other. It was because they had fear. Fear of hurting themselves because they weren't wearing full suits of armor, and fear of reprisal because the players policed themselves. If you took a run at an opposing player, you could bet your mullet that you would pay for it sooner or later.
So, here are my proposed rule changes:
1. Get rid of the uber-equipment.
2. Get rid of the instigator rule.
While we're at it, let's get rid of not only visors, but helmets as well. You can bet that players would be more careful with their sticks and their elbows if they didn't have any head protection at all.
And finally, let's bring back the mullet. Without helmets, the NHL could legislate "hockey hair" for all players. It would be great for us fans as well. We could recognize our favorite players by the flow on their head instead of the number on their back.