NHLPA To Blame For Safety Issues, Not The NHL

Mark RitterSenior Writer INovember 7, 2009

PITTSBURGH - MAY 04: Blood is removed from the ice after an injury to Chris Drury #23 of the New York Rangers in his game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in game five of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2008 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 4, 2008 at the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In 1979, after years of resistance by NHL players, the NHL made helmets mandatory for  players entering the league. Veteran players that were currently helmet-less would be allowed to let their locks fly if they chose, but the goal was to have all players wearing helmets within five to 10 years.

Players like Guy Lafleur, Ron Duguay, Brad Marsh and many others refused to get on-board with the change and continued to let their hair fly in the face of the NHL. In fact, the last player to not wear a helmet was none other than former Edmonton Oiler defenseman and head coach, Craig Mactavish, who went helmet-less until 1997.

Looking back, mandating helmets was a “no-brainer” (pardon the pun!), but it didn’t happen overnight and the decision was not without protest. Many NHL players argued a helmet was too hot to wear, others said helmets limited their vision, another argument was that the chin straps were too tight, more still felt helmets limited the identity of the players—all laughable excuses.

The players' loud protest fell on deaf ears, as the NHL witnessed enough injuries and—for the better safety of its greatest assets (the players)—the NHL put their foot down on this issue. Too hot, too heavy, limited vision, straps too tight, limited identity, who cares? It’s better than having your brains all over the ice, right?

Fast forward to 2009. Every NHL forward boasts huge shoulder pads, massive elbow pads, shin pads, padding for your butt, padding for your hips, padding for your crotch, etc, etc. Heck, most of the so-called “padding” is in fact made of hard plastic, hard enough to knock a player out cold if used as a weapon, which, at times, it is.

Through all the changes, through all the recommendations, one thing has remained constant; NHL players remained slow to react to change, many downright refuse, especially when it comes to helmets and, more recently, visors.

For the most part, the modern day hockey player is well-educated, a far cry from the lunchpail athlete of the 1960s and '70s. That said, no matter how educated today’s players seem on the surface, many NHL players are just as dumb as the players who roamed the ice before them.

How so? Well, for starters, there are still plenty of NHL players who refuse to wear a visor. What’s laughable is visors have been met with the same lame excuses that helmets once were. Too heavy, limits my vision, it fogs up...etc, etc.

What it amounts to is good old-fashioned macho chest-thumping, a Neanderthal attitude predicated on old-school attitudes and unfounded objections. It seems somewhere along the way somebody instilled in the players you were not a man if you wore a visor, so we see numerous cavemen patrolling the ice sans visor.

More troubling is the fact far too many NHL players refuse to wear their helmet properly. Many are inadequately padded and chin straps are rarely tightened, leaving players vulnerable to having their bucket knocked off by a heavy hit or upon impact with the ice.

The NHL has tried to institute rules to protect the players from themselves in this regard. Trouble is, the NHL Players Association and its members continually refute attempts by the NHL to mandate proper helmet use—and for what?

The reality is, most NHL players do not do up their chin straps, they’d rather let them dangle or hang loose, which is both foolish and an act of stupidity. Not doing your chin strap up properly is akin to wearing a seat belt improperly.

Think about it. When you need a seat belt to work in a crash, you need to be wearing it properly. Otherwise you risk being thrown from the car, leaving you vulnerable to considerable injury.

In many instances, it is not the actual hit that does the damage to a player. It's actually the impact on the skull when it hits the ice that causes the concussions and, in some cases, skull fractures.

Sadly, the NHL has been dragging its feet on this issue and, at some point, a star player may very well pay the price. Then, and only then, will the NHL stand a chance of making chin straps mandatory, which is sad.

When it comes to visors, the NHLPA prefers to let its members make an educated decision as to whether or not they wish to wear one. Fact is, any player that refuses to wear a visor is uneducated to a fault and should be required to sign a waiver (as the NHL once demanded NHL players to do if they refused to wear a helmet).

Many players and coaches have suggested the addition of helmets and visors has contributed to more violence and a lack of respect for opposing players in the game. To be fair, there is some evidence and truth to that statement, but I believe it has more to do with the gladitator-esque shoulder pads that all the players wear today.

By and large, when a hockey player gets fully outfitted for a game, he has an overwhelming feeling of invincibility. Players rarely feel the hits they dish out. In fact, for the most part, the equipment absorbs the impact.

Meanwhile, the player that gets hit is in danger of suffering a long-term injury, ending their career and, in some cases, costing them their lives. Sure, the incidents are rare, but even one is too many.

It’s high time the NHL and the NHLPA got together and did what was best for the players. Every day the NHL lets the players wear their helmets improperly and/or refuse to wear a visor is another day they endanger their players. The NHL needs to tell the players what to do and stop letting the inmates run the asylum.

Eye injuries, concussions and skull fractures can last a lifetime. The NHL could solve most of these issues in one swoop by demanding that all players be required to wear helmets (properly) and visors. Trouble is, the NHLPA and it’s members will likely block any such request.

The NHL is already trying to make a difference by penalizing any and all “head shots.” Why not take the initiative to protect the players first, so that if a head shot occurs, the player has a better chance at escaping injury?

One thing many NHL players have quickly adopted to using are mouth guards, which can reduce the possibility of a concussion. But again, there is no legislation which forces the players to use them, even though research shows using a mouth guard reduces the risks of concussion considerably, not to mention keeping your Chicklets in place!

The past few years, we have watched the likes of Eric Lindros, Keith Primeau, Patrice Bergeron, Darcy Tucker, Simon Gagne, Brandon Sutter and many others suffer massive concussion trauma, leading to months of inactivity and, in some cases, ending the player's career.

The NHLPA and its members needs to stop blocking equipment requirements and do what is right for the athletes. If they continue to allow players to make poor decisions, the results will mirror those of the past, which endangers it’s members lives and livelihood.

As the saying goes, if you do the same thing over and over, you always get the same results. It’s time for a change, the blood is on your ice...what are you willing to do about it???

Until next time,