Everyone is interested in making hockey safer. Yes, even you Grumpy Old Guy With His Hand Raised. This is one way to do it, and we aren’t even going to mention fighting.
Making Hockey Safer is Easy
But whenever the most common solution – a rule change – is tried, there are unintended consequences. There is unevenness in newly illegal plays or new penalties being called. There are objections from the fans – or at least some fans. Put your hand down, GOGWHHR. And frankly, that’s understandable. It’s a game that has a long tradition, and when a change arises at the highest level it’s easy to feel protective.
Some of us *ahem* absolutely despise the amount of advertising that has crept into the game. That’s even though it doesn’t disrupt play at all.* But then, there aren’t many left who remember when it was played on a white sheet without even ads on the boards. But we digress.
That the game has improved is unquestionable. Players train longer and more intelligently. They take care of their bodies better. And not all of them are Canadian. No offence to any Canucks reading this, but drawing from a pool of a couple hundred thousand fanatics isn’t going to get you as good results as drawing from them and from another million players around the world.
Times They Are A-Changing
And if you understand that reference, you can probably remember when hockey was straight-up a game for sociopaths. A player who deliberately broke an opponent’s ankle was a national hero. The last full season the NHL played had Evander Kane as the penalty leader with 153 minutes. That was about 17% more than the second-highest player: Tom Wilson with 128 PIM.
By way of comparison, Dave Schultz got 139 minutes in the 1974 Stanley Cup Playoffs. That year his entire run was 17 games long. Twelve years later, Chris Nilan topped that with 141 in 18 games. Both those teams, interesting note, won the Stanley Cup those respective years. The last player to lead the league in playoff penalty minutes and win the Cup was way back in… 2017. Evgeny Malkin pulled that off during the Pittsburgh Penguins run, but it took 25 games to reach his 53 minutes.
Changes have already happened. And they’ve been, by and large, for the better. And it’s not just a time thing, either. Take any of the exceptional players from any era and drop them into today’s world and they’d do fine. Probably not as overwhelming as they were in their own age, but they’d do fine.
It’s Not The Rules
Look, we know referees are a traditional target. But we’re going to ease off on them here (We SAID put your hand DOWN, GOGWHHR!) and not make another change. Getting new directives from the Suits every year is one thing, but dealing with adrenaline-fuelled puck jockeys is another. The fans can be pissed off at a missed play all they want – they have slo-mo replays after all – but referees have to keep their cool when the fans, players, and coaches are all trying to play ride them to give their side an advantage. Or just to yell at them for funsies.
So we don’t propose to make hockey safer with a rule change. It’s an equipment change.
Hockey is an inherently dangerous sport. It simply is. It’s an utterly ridiculous one as well. We make a slippery surface safer by applying knife shoes to our feet. We’re not allowed to use our hands – except for punching, in which case it’s important we don’t use gloves. We get in the way of 120 KM/H of vulcanized rubber. And that piece of rubber is the weirdest thing in sports. There are a LOT of things to choose from if you want to be making hockey safer.
Here’s the thing: none of those is the most dangerous bit. The most dangerous thing in hockey is… playing it. There are boards around the rink to keep the ice inside, but it also keeps players and pucks in there, too. They don’t have much flex to them, but getting hit against them is a regular part of the game. As is getting hit in open ice, which is dangerous enough that loads of rules have come in to change how players are allowed to do that one, basic feature of hockey. Heck, just falling down on the ice can easily lead to a concussion. And that stuff’s slippery!
Those core parts of the game are what can do damage to our brains. And here, yes, we’ll admit we lied when we said we weren’t going to mention fighting. Fighting is also a very dangerous thing, on ice and off. Lots of folks say it’s also unnecessary to hockey, unlike bodychecks and ice. That’s a debate for another article, though.
Dress for Success
Equipment changes aplenty have happened over the years. Everything from minimizing goalie pads to maximizing the length of the sticks to forcing(!) players to wear helmets. Yeah, the past is a foreign land, kids. There is, however, one change that hasn’t been mentioned much at all and that’s the player’s armour. There’s good reason, as it’s considered protective gear, and the better that is the better for everyone, right?
Well, no. Not always. Goalies are an exception, as ever, but the hard external shell of the modern elbow and shoulder pads is actually quite dangerous. It’s obviously great for protection from errant pucks or smacking into the ice, no debate there. But when it hits other players, that is a very hard, sudden, impact. Whatever causes your head to change direction suddenly – or a change of velocity, like hitting the ice – can concuss you.
Harm is greatly reduced by extending how long the impact lasts. This is true even if it’s only extended by microseconds. It’s like how airbags help in the event of a car crash. Seatbelts alone will stop you, but airbags make your body take a longer time to decelerate in the same distance. More obviously, any wrestling ring without a floor that “gives” would kill people, even though that give is only a small amount.
Returning to soft pads above the waist – not below, let’s get real here – can do the same. Impacts to the head, typically the jaw, will have a longer impact time and reduce the suddenness of the hit by absorbing some of it into the protective gear. Since everything below the waist is at a higher risk of getting hit by the puck but has a much lower chance of hitting a player’s chin, hard shells make sense there. But plays where a skater is hit in mid-stride and the shoulder or elbow catches them badly are common.
Intent is almost irrelevant here, as while accidents do happen bodychecks are actively encouraged. They are a part of the game, and there’s going to be a sudden change of direction for someone out there. However you feel about some hits being better than others or what have you, hits are hits. Making hockey safer while throwing them is logical.
There is a risk of one side effect some fans may or may not like: throwing hits will hurt again. There may even be a couple of players who injure themselves early on if they are used to driving into the glass with gleeful abandon. On the other hand, we might see the re-emergence of players who are very good at using those boards to pin players rather than just hit them. Watching Ray Bourque laugh as opposing forwards tried to get the puck at their feet was frustrating, but pretty dang impressive.
Happy now, GOGWHHR? Good.
*Except for the three-times-a-period, two-minute-long “TV Timeouts” that add twenty frikkin’ minutes to the game and break up the flow for the Almighty Dollar so some billionaire muttermumblegripe