February 22, 2010

Is today's game really safer?

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Is it live? Or is it Memorex? It’s one of those advertising slogans that you never seem to forget. Yet it seems like ancient history when music or television shows were actually taped. Is it the real thing or is it a copy?

We can ask a similar question as it relates to violence in hockey these days. Is the game really that much more violent than it was years ago? Or does it just seem that way because of how much more accessible information is today. Maybe there is the same number or even fewer incidents of violence, but we’re just seeing or hearing about all of them.

Watch the hockey highlights on ESPN’s SportsCenter and you will be assured of seeing a big hit or two, maybe even someone seriously injured as a result of that hit. Scan the sports pages or the Internet and there will mostly likely be an article about a controversial play that resulted in a concussion or some other injury to a player. Is it just hype, a strategy to improve ratings or increase page views? Or has the game really become more dangerous?

Injuries are up at the NHL level and it seems that “addressing head injuries” is always an item on the agenda of any Board of Governors meeting. Earlier this season, an Ontario Hockey League player was suspended for the remainder of the year after delivering a body check that fractured the skull of an opponent. Recent headlines in the youth hockey section of the Toronto Star included this one: “Crackdown Urged on Head Injuries.”

Has the game changed? Is it played differently than it was years ago? Shouldn’t it actually be safer to play based on the lessons learned and changes made over the years? You would think so. But that might not necessarily be the case.

In his national bestseller book, “Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us),”author Tom Vanderbilt described a phenomenon where safer cars and safer roads do not always result in fewer traffic accidents. Often, when drivers feel they are safer, they drive in a more risky manner, which results in more accidents. So safer could actually be more dangerous.

I think that’s definitely a factor in the hockey world.

Not that long ago, as hard as that may be to believe to younger players, NHL guys were not required to wear helmets. Imagine playing the game at that pace without any protection on your head – a little like riding a motorcycle without a helmet. But players did it. Most players throughout the 1970s did not wear helmets, and they were not made mandatory until 1979. Youth hockey players were not required to wear full facemasks until the mid-‘70s, and college hockey made it compulsory equipment later in the decade. 

Players today are much safer. They wear helmets with full facemasks. They do not have to fear a puck, a stick or an errant elbow in the face. So they put their face in places that they otherwise might not. Conversely, they have less fear of injuring someone or being injured when body-checking an opponent. Consequently, players tend to play a little more aggressively and a little more recklessly than they otherwise would.

So it is not surprising that there are more violent collisions in today’s hockey world. More head injuries. More concussions.

But there is more to it than just the equipment. The pace of the game today is much faster. With the advent of power skating training in the early 1970s, today’s players skate with much more power and speed.

Coaches push the pace as well. Where shift times back when were well over a minute -- and players actually coasted at times on the ice -- they are now 30-45 seconds of full-speed, pressure-the-puck, all-out hockey. Playing without the puck is coached like never before and “time and space” is at a premium. As the game is much faster and players are a little less under control, there is a much greater risk of collisions and – ultimately -- injuries.

But is the game more violent? Definitely not more than it was in the ‘70s or ‘80s. Not a chance. Philadelphia’s “Broad Street Bullies” of the mid-‘70s set the tone at that time, and teams at every level of play followed suit. Bench-clearing brawls were a common occurrence. Imagine the uproar today if players went into the stands to fight the fans. There would be jail time involved and probably a congressional hearing.

Five-on-five line brawls happened all the time in the ‘80s. Check out the penalty-minute leader totals over the years and you will see that today’s hockey world is a much kinder and much gentler place.

The majority of needless violence has been eliminated from the game. At the same time, virtually all elements of the game -- from equipment to skill level of the players -- have improved. But just like safer roads and safer cars, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a safer game with safer players. As one set of problems is corrected, others arise.

That is the part that we still need to improve upon. But how do we do that? Who bears the burden to make the game safer to reduce injuries? The answer is this: We all do.

Administrators need to make sure that the equipment guidelines and playing rule changes very much take into account the safety of the players. Referees need to officiate with the safety of the players as one of the primary objectives. Players need to be made to understand the consequences of reckless and unsafe play and be held accountable. Parents need to understand and reinforce that the game can be played aggressively and safely and that “toughness” doesn’t equate to trying to maim an opponent.

But the group that probably has the greatest influence of all is the coaches. They can and should be the ones to make the greatest impression on the players – and, ultimately, their safety.

Lyle Phair can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.