The NHL’s 30 General Managers are all done in Boca Raton. Meetings are all wrapped up, presentations given and powerpoint slides spent. With player safety front and center on the agenda, and in the wake of the Chara/Pacioretty hit, we’ve heard variations of the phrase “we don’t want to tamper with the fabric of game” uttered several times.
It seems that the General Managers, custodians of the game, and the men who shape hockey as we see it on the ice are overwhelmingly reticent to make player safety a top priority despite the top billing on the agenda. Why? Because it may mess with “the fabric of the game”.
Well let me submit the following:
- For every game Sidney Crosby, Marc Savard, David Perron, and other star players miss because of unnecessary, and potentially preventable head shots, the fabric of the game is tampered with.
- For every ESPN update with a prone, unconscious hockey player on the ice, leaving the NHL with another black eye, the fabric of the game is stained.
- For every toothless, feckless “plan” that doesn’t address the root of the problem, and accomplishes nothing other than provide something to prop up as “great progress” in the quest for player safety, the fabric of the game is weakened.
- For every blindside hit, dirty head shot, and violent kill shot that goes unpunished, and excused as “a good hockey play”, the fabric of the game deteriorates.
- For every time the issue of violence in hockey is swept under the rug and dismissed as “part of the game”, (or when dullard coaches insist that fans “stay home”) the fabric of the game unravels.
- For every time stanchions and equipment are fingered as the real culprits, instead of the unthinking, uncaring player, the fabric of the game is torn.
- For every day that passes with no real deterrent for hits to the head, and the run around unchecked, without responsibility, the fabric of the game is left in the sun to fade.
- For every passing season where gestures and comments are considered more offensive than dangerous, potentially career-threatening hits to the head, the fabric of the game is scuffed.
- For every year that slips by where General Managers refuse to comprehend that hits to the head that can end careers, and detroy lives are toxic to the sport, the fabric of the game is eroded from the inside-out.
- For every time fan bases get at each others’ throats over violent hits, instead of forming a united front to help drive change, the fabric of the game is frayed.
The NHL has plenty of dangling loose ends right now. From sponsorship scandals, ownership battles, poor vieweship, weak attendance in many U.S. markets, nonsensical rules, inexplicable discipline rulings, and unabated violence, it’s clear that the league needs to be saved from itself. While the quality of the games has never been higher, particularly at the international level (where headshots are banned) and during the playoffs (where violence takes a back seat in the pursuit of glory) the whole sport is lesser when the impotent, sloth-footed powers that be refuse to rise to the occasion and do what’s right. Hockey isn’t what it used to be. The game has evolved over the past century to become the fastest, hardest-hitting game on earth. There was a time when the forward pass was not permitted. There was a time when goalies were not allowed to go down to make a save. There was a time when goalie masks were unheard of. There was a time when helmets were considered for sissies, and had to be grandfathered in. Hockey moved past all of those things. Leaders opened their eyes, took chances, and lived with the pain that comes with change.
Coming out of the lockout, the NHL made changes to the rules that emphasized skill, speed and scoring. They didn’t foresee the increase in violence and devastating hits that would result from hulking players flying unchecked at supersonic speeds, wearing rock-hard equipment and armed with the most dangerous weapon of all: recklessness. Today the General Managers are willingly stuck in quicksand and refuse to reach for the vines that can pull them to safety. Perhaps they hope their toes touch bottom before they suffocate. Can they really be this blind? Are they so proud that they can’t or won’t make changes that will potentially undo the changes they made a few years ago? Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that equipment and arena design needs to be addressed. But that still isn’t enough. Not by a long shot. The root cause is player irresponsibility, carelessness, lack of respect and comfort in knowing that discipline, if any will be light. A one or two game suspension may even be a welcome trade of rest for “sending a message” to an opponent.
Perhaps the leaders of the sport should swap the term “fabric” for “carbon-fibre”, “graphite”, or “kevlar” since they seem to prefer things that are as hard as their heads.