Thursday, March 10, 2011

They reap what they sow

[Funny how things go.  I write a blog post about having fun and then jump into this meaty - and not necessarily fun - topic.  Hey, I don't write the news stories...I just comment on them.]

If you follow NHL hockey and haven't been living under a rock, you've probably heard about the hit by Boston's Zdeno Chara on Montreal's Max Pacioretty.  It was a nasty hit, with Chara driving Pacioretty into the stantion and inflicting both a concussion and a fractured vertebrae on Pacioretty.

Chara took an in-game penalty for the hit but received no supplemental discipline from the NHL, something that has ticked off the people of Montreal, the Montreal police, the owner of the Canadiens and even Air Canada, an NHL sponsor.  It also brought the whole issue of hockey violence and safety back into focus in the public consciousness - as is evidenced by this New York Times article, which I found featured fairly prominently on their front page.

I'm going to comment on the issue, but not on the hit itself.  I'm no NHL rule expert, not a referee.  But I do have some thoughts on the larger issues at play.

In a nutshell, the NHL reaps what it has sown.  Why do I say that?  Read on.

First, the player protective equipment is better built than they ever have been.  Players are no longer just hockey players; they're fast-moving weapons out there.  They can deliver hits, receive hits and often not be hurt in either circumstance.

Second, advances in conditioning and training make the players finely-tuned machines themselves.  They are faster and stronger.  They are physically capable of delivering - and absorbing - hits in ways that I'd suggest they've never done before.

Combine those two, and you have players who believe that they're invincible out there.  Then toss into the mix a culture that has only tracked hits for 13 years (making the delivering of hits something measurable, something to be proud of and perhaps incent in contracts) and creation of the 1992 "instigator rule" that tacks on an additional two-minute penalty for starting a fight.  You're now promoting hard hits - and they need to be hard, because you want to get them added to your stat page - and discouraging fighting.

Ladies and gentlemen, we've got a culture where players are able to take the most wicked shots on opponents on the ice with the knowledge that the likelihood of retribution is minimal.  Oh, you also have really, really subjective refereeing that encourages sniping at refs more than fearing the whistle.  And you wonder why these career-threatening injuries are piling up?

Tell me with a straight face that the Production Line in Detroit would
have been able to deliver the bone-crunching hits that today's NHLers offer
game in and game out.  With that little padding and protection.  RIGHT. 
Here's my solution.  Now I'm no hockey expert, so I'll just rely upon common sense.  And, in my case, common-sense actually seems counter-cultural to what's going on in the world of hockey today.
  1. Lighten the level of player protection.  Strip back the armor.  Doing so means that the party delivering the hit will often feel the "hurt" of the hit as much as the one receiving it.  
  2. Kill the "instigator rule."  Let those who deliver hits out there be on notice: You WILL be called out for your actions.  I'm not sure that man-monster Zdeno Chara really cares about taking a subsequent fight, but I'm guessing that the majority of NHL players don't want to get smeared by the other team's enforcer.
  3. Standardize the refereeing.  Call penalties with more consistency.  And the league should reward/penalize referees for their performance if they do not do so already.
  4. Eliminate the "hits" statistic.  It does nothing more than promote hitting (as opposed to goals, which promote putting the puck in the back of the net).  Statistics should be tracked to incentivize positive performance, not negative.
  5. Consider creating an "eye for an eye" suspension structure as a means of last resort.  If the league determines that an illegal hit was the cause of injury to a player that forces the injured player to miss games, then the player inflicting the hit is suspended until the injured party is deemed ready by the league to return to the ice.  If Zdeno Chara ends Max Pacioretty's career, then Chara ends his own career.  Same for Todd Bertuzzi vis a vis Steve Moore.  If James Neal puts Derek Dorsett in the press box for six weeks, Neal sits for the same amount of time.
  6. Fighting, even the circus sideshow fighting that NHL enforcers do these days, is handled just the same as it is right now (sans the "instigator rule").
All told, I'm advocating tough love with the players.  Ten Minute Misconduct's Jeff Little and I had an interesting dialogue about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, hockey violence and how to curb it.  In his post on the matter, Jeff said,
In the final analysis, this issue transcends all of these “band-aid” fixes. It boils down to respect. Not just the respect from one player to another, but the respect of one human being to another. When did football move from tackling to “hitting”? Similarly, when did hockey move from checking to “hitting”? A subtle distinction, but telling, I think. I once asked an NHL off-ice official about the definition of a “hit” for statistical purposes, since the numbers seemed to vary wildly between league venues. As I suspected, he admitted that it was a somewhat amorphous concept, but that they look for contact that disrupts the play — separates the player from the puck, etc. I get that — it makes perfect sense. However, it does not mean that you have to knock the opponent into the third row of the seats.
Changing NHL policy to clamp down on dirty hits won't necessarily stop
them, but it certainly should make the person delivering the hit think twice.
We agree more than we disagree, but I do not trust human nature to improve just because we want it to.  As I said in my comment responding to his post:
While I agree wholeheartedly with your assertion that a level of civility in player behavior would cut down on cheap shots, dirty hits and the assorted injuries that they cause (including CTE), I think it a little bit much to suggest that the answer is that the players need to step up and recognize their shared obligation to each other.

It’s that same sentiment that suggests that education would improve if only parents were more involved in their childrens’ education. Or that if we all Just Said No, we wouldn’t have a drug problem in America. You can’t argue with the assertions, but look where it’s gotten us as a society. Not very far.
Sadly, I acknowledge that people will always push the limits.  They will always try to get a competitive advantage wherever they can find it.  And if that means a nasty hit or a cheap shot in a league where they have reasonably decent odds of getting away with it, why not take the shot?

So it's up to the NHL to lay down the law and make these transgressions hurt the offending players where it counts - make them literally feel the pain as much as their victims, make them subject to retaliation from other opposing players and make them sit out as long as their victims are out.  That might slow down the stretchers.  It might work, it might not.  But really, can it be any worse than it is right now without handing the league over to Vince McMahon?

The bottom glass configuration is that which
currently is used in Montreal.  Apparently
NHL arenas will all have the top glass
configuration starting next season. (Link)
On a side note, Blue Jacket exile Mike Commodore offered another possible means to address the situation today via Twitter, as listed below (with emphasis added by yours truly):
  • watched the hit 5 more times . Tough 2 watch. This will take a couple tweets so bear w me. I think a couple of things should be different.
  • First of I think a suspension is warranted. 2 or 4 games. something like that. I don't think Chara is a dirty player, mean but not dirty.
  • I don't think he was trying to hurt him. But he did. I don't think the police should be involved. Lastly, it is time for bell center to
  • to change its glass. That stuff is like a brick wall. Having that glass where the hit took place is asking for an injury.
  • It needs to be way more flexible or forgiving. The pad that is on that turnbuckle now is a joke. 1 inch of foam on a rock hard turnbuckle is
  • useless. Or get rid of that small section of glass.
  • For the people asking what is dif from Mtl glass to other arenas..mtl glass is seamless, makes the glass way "stiffer". Way less forgiving
  • Pretty sure Mtl isnt the only arena though. I think They should get rid of all the seamless glass. You get your head or shoulders hit into
  • that glass hard there is a higher chance of head injury or blown out shoulder.
  • Anyways, the league and NHLPA will figure it out. They always do. Just takes a little time is all.
So there's another possibility...change the playing environment.  Sounds like a no-brainer to me, but I think that following that course of action without trying to meaningfully address player behavior is a band-aid.  You'll still have your James Neal hits, your Todd Bertuzzi sucker punches, your Matt Cooke flying leaps.

Of course, I'm not a lawyer nor have I ever played the game in an organized fashion.  So what do I know?

[UPDATE: I guess I know something, as Rangers coach John Tortorella just called for the death of the "instigator rule".]

4 comments:

  1. why did you refer to Commodore as BJ exile? Love the blog, most of the suggestions, and that you included an insider's tweet stream!

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  2. Thanks, Kimberlie, glad you like!

    I refer to Commodore as an "exile" because 1) Commie was frustrated with Arniel's scratches to the point that he asked for a trade. As you probably are aware, the Blue Jackets couldn't find a trade partner and instead sent Commodore to Springfield. In my mind, that's exile.

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  3. Hope you don't mind DBJ, but I've copied Commie's comments and posted them, with attribution to you, in the HFBoard discussion of the incident. I think the viewpoint of someone on the "inside" who we all know will be useful to furthering our understanding of what happened and why. Thanks for your, as always, cogent and well-considered thoughts on the subject.

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  4. Tend to agree with most of this. While I am not a fan of using fighting as a means of deterrence (because it wont work - "finely-tuned machines" arent going to be afraid of getting punched enough to stop them from crossing the line. See Cooke v. Kane, 2010), the underlying argument is right - the NHL has to use its powers to make people think twice about crossing the line.

    ReplyDelete