ice hockey player in action kicking with stick

We are only dealt one brain for a lifetime. Hockey luddites have traditionally dismissed brain traumas with “don’t worry, it’s only your coconut”. However, even big, tough hockey players suffer mightily from the result of repetitive head traumas. A recent rash of suicides by ex-enforcers, most of whom probably suffered from CTE, has awakened the hockey world to the dangers of concussions.

   As with football, the brain changes leading to CTE begin early in a hockey career. Repetitive traumas devastate our neurons. Eventually this may lead to various brain problems(CTE, ALS, Parkinsons, dementia…among others). Brain trauma to the developing nervous system results in significant loss of brain function. These young hockey players may struggle for 60 or 70 years saddled by a lower IQ. By delaying checking until age 13, we can minimize the impact of early head traumas.

  NHL fighters and enforcers often endure headaches, depression, dementia, and other neurological problems. As with many ex-NFL players, they may turn to alcohol and drugs. Suicide is frequently the result. It’s simply not worth the money and glory.

  As a kid, I watched Bobby Hull fly up the ice at the old Chicago Stadium. Using his heavy wooden stick he would wind up and unleash a fierce slapper past a frightened, maskless goalie. Stan Mikita was a 1960’s version of The Great Gretzky.  Mikita was a skilled magician with the puck. The majestic beauty of hockey lies in the passing, stickhandling, shooting, and goaltending. We could do without the thuggery.

  If little is done, players will keep suffering and lawyers will continue to sue. The easiest change is to eliminate fighting. Fighting primarily exists in order to entertain fans.  An enforcer’s role supposedly includes protecting the star players.   The refs and league should be protecting the players, not relying upon enforcers.  The NHL has a long history of inadequately punishing thuggish goons.  Skilled hockey players are much more entertaining than are clumsy fighters.

 Studies have indicated that forwards bear the brunt of the violence and injuries. The “big men” from 1965 were 6 feet and 180 lb.; now they have grown to 6’5”, 230lb. Many concussions occur when a larger man hits a smaller player. As the players have increased in size and brawn, serious injuries have also increased.

   The NHL has instituted a number of rule changes. These have not yet resulted in significantly fewer injuries.

 How important is hitting to hockey? In the NFL, hitting is an integral part of the game. Hockey is very different. Imagine a game patterned after the women’s version, where bodychecking was not allowed(or minimized). The incredible speed and breathtaking skill would be a beautiful thing to watch. We would not have to cringe every time a defenseman gives up the puck, knowing some big lug is going to crash into him(which rarely occurred in the 1960’s). Our favorite players might continue playing into their 40’s, having suffered fewer injuries. They might actually go on to enjoy life, without requiring multiple joint replacements. The neurologic devastation would be far less.   

  

The NHL overtime 3 on 3 game is exhilarating to watch. The high skill players go head to head, with magical displays of passing and shooting.  It’s hockey at it’s finest, without the unnecessary crushing body and head blows.

  Minimizing checking would not eliminate head injuries. NCAA women hockey players do not bodycheck, yet they suffer higher rates of concussions than the men.  The women’s concussion rates even exceed those of football players. Several reasons for this include: 1. strong neck muscles help protect the brain from injury, and women have weaker neck musculature, and 2. without checking women are less apt to  anticipate being hit, not bracing themselves for a collision.

  It’s unlikely that we will see an end to checking. Prohibiting bodychecking in one zone, such as between the blue lines, would cut down on injuries.  Most injuries occur in the offensive or defensive zone, but eliminating hitting in the middle(neutral) portion of the ice would least affect the game.

 If hitting were restricted, other aspects of the game would need to be tweaked. So that every game did not have 30 goals scored, the nets could be made a bit smaller. Or, goalies could go back to slightly larger pads. What would be so terrible if the average game ended with a score of  8 to 7? Fans like scoring; the last time I checked, the NBA enjoys huge ratings.

  The NHL could easily crack down on thuggish play. If a player intentionally injured another, previously the league would assess a paltry 1 or 2 game suspension(if at all). While the suspensions have lengthened, they remain inadequate.  Fining the coach and team may also help to minimize the superfluous violence.                                                                                         

 During the 2012 playoffs, the popular Chicago Blackhawk star Marian Hossa  was knocked out by a vicious hit. Raffi Torres, a  repeat offender, had launched himself at Hossa’s head.  This ended the Blackhawks’ chances, and quite possibly may lead to permanent neurologic problems for Hossa.  As usual, the NHL allowed Torres to remain in the league, and he has continued to injure other players.

  In 2012 I wrote an article ,“Stop Football(under age 18),Save Brains”. Hockey is not football, and all ages should be able to participate. However, hockey remains a rough, physical game, often resulting in devastating injuries. We could minimize the violence without materially affecting the game.

This was originally published on Real Clear Sports.

  

 

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