By JD Lagrange – When it comes to Player Safety, the NFL is the most pro-active professional league in North America. They have recognized a long time ago that taking someone at the knees (clipping) is wrong and addressed the issue. Then, they followed brain science closely and rapidly acknowledged that head injuries and concussions, in a physical sport, cause severe long term damage. In all cases, the league has taken drastic measures not only to change some rules, but to hand out severe repercussions to those guilty of ignoring those rules.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have the NHL who refuses to even acknowledge the science behind concussions and its long term effects. And several people, including players’ agent Allan Walsh, have been driving the bus hard against the league and its Commissioner Gary Bettman, and for quite some time.
Refereeing and Player Safety
In its wisdom, the NHL thought that bringing two referees on the ice was a good idea. As if expansion wasn’t enough by graduating referees that were previously not competent enough to work in the NHL, the league decided that doubling the number of men with red armbands would solve the few “missed calls” on the ice.
Instead, they have taken room away on an ice surface already getting too small due to the sheer size of players. Instead, they added one more judgement (an often incompetent one) to the mix, creating more inconsistency. It’s a flop. The refereeing was 100% better back when one man took all the decisions, as it was more consistent within the same game. Did they miss calls? Yes. But they miss as many today while creating more inconsistency.
Then, you have the so-called “Player Safety”, directed by former enforcer George Parros. What a mess this department has been. They do whatever they want in there, depending on the players or teams involved.
Instead of penalizing the action, they choose to punish the result of the play. It’s as silly as the bleeding rule on a high stick. You can cause a hairline fracture to someone’s jaw with the flat blade of the stick and it’s a two minutes penalty. But if you barely touch someone’s face with the tip of your stick, drawing blood (the face is one of the bloodiest parts of the body), it’s four minutes. The Player Safety department acts in a similar fashion.
There simply is no consistency and it starts at the very top. Too often, it seems like they’re looking for ways to protect the aggressor instead of the victims of infractions or cheap shots. They break down, frame by frame, if a player touched another part of the body other than the head, to justify not being too severe. You don’t see that in the NFL. You made contact to the head, you are punished. Period.
Instead of resolving head trauma issues, the NHL (and NHLPA) are hiding behind the umbrella of “player safety”, or “protection” when allowing equipment that is more suited as weapons than actual protection. Oh it does protect… the aggressor instead of the victims of hits.
Whether you like him or not, Don Cherry did this segment 23 years ago. That’s right, back in 1999, Grapes was talking about the players’ equipment and how it had progressed and becoming a weapon utilized against their peers.
Those old shoulder pads never stopped players like Bob Gainey from giving bone-crushing bodychecks. Sometimes, the aggressor got hurt playing that way. But they knew it was coming and mostly, there was a level of respect we don’t see as much today. Players feel invincible in those armours and the victims are the ones most at risk.
And that’s why, folks, the NHL is losing ground amongst North America’s major sports. In spite of a steady growth in revenue (mostly due to expansion) and expanding to 32 markets, the NHL has been surpassed in the US by… soccer! Yet look where the league with the most integrity sits, the NFL!
No, it’s not because of fighting as some want to make you believe. If anything, the league has tied the players’ hands behind their back, talking away their ability to keep each other accountable, when they amended the instigator rule to what it is, bringing down the number of fights. The real culprit is the league’s inconsistency and below par administration of rules on the ice that’s turning even hardcore fans into fair-weather fans, or bandwagon jumpers.
Revenue is the biggest copout for short term gain, the biggest smoke screen behind which both the NHL and NHLPA are hiding at the expense of the sport itself and mostly, of the fans paying big money to watch them wreck something once great.