Commentary: Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Hockey has a problem: it has over-evolved.

Like any successful entity, the sport of hockey has adapted to the marketplace by evolving: equipment, rules, strategies, training and game presentation have all developed in a grand chronological braid. The product that we see on the ice — whether it be NHL, collegiate, high school or rec league — is remarkably different from what it was not even 10 years ago, and it will assuredly be a different animal again ten years hence.

But where do ostensibly desirable attributes like speed, power and strength peak, beyond which point any further enhancements actually work to the detriment of the game?

I would argue that we’re already rolling down that decline, and only picking up speed.

Dropping the Gloves

As an icebreaker, a pet peeve, and a point of legitimate concern, I begin by channeling TSN’s Bob McKenzie: the game of ice hockey needs to change. Not just at the collegiate level, but at all levels of full-contact hockey.

The fact of the matter is that there is a prolific lack of respect between players these days. I’m not an old-timer, but I know what I see: since the inception of the “New NHL” after the 2004 lockout, players — at all levels — have become less accountable for their actions and it’s already had dire consequences.

Making Our Bed

Over the last generation or two, athletes in all sports have become more specialized: the idea of an elite multi-sport collegian has become nearly mythical by this point. Players (and coaches, and parents) fear injury, lost developmental opportunities, and the simple lack of time that stems from trying to play more than one sport at an optimal level. This specialization has effectively resulted in born-and-bred one-sport athletes — whether he’s playing football, baseball, tennis, track or hockey, today’s athlete is bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, and generally better-conditioned for his sport and his sport alone than any of his predecessors.

Combine this fact with some recent alterations to the hockey landscape.

In the NHL, enhanced deterrents against fighting have made on-ice policing against cheap hits more difficult, and as in most sports, the top league’s policies have trickled down to lower tiers in either spirit or letter.

The new post-lockout rules and adjustments encouraged a faster, more open and free-flowing game, which on its surface sounded like an immense relief from what had become a decade of clutch, grab, hold, hook, and trap hockey.

As in the rest of the world, advancements in technology have subtly yet significantly affected the hockey universe as well. Developments in synthetics and physiological research have made equipment lighter and stronger; they’ve also optimized the rink a little bit by improving the consistency of the boards, glass and playing surfaces.

Finally, college hockey has its own pre-existing condition that comes into play: that of the mandatory cages. Over two decades of NCAA hockey players have had to wear full face-shields or cages, out of concern for the kinds of major facial and cranial injuries that can occur without such protection.

When these factors coincide, the game gets nasty. Bigger, stronger players wearing lighter, sturdier equipment are banging into each other at heretofore unequaled speeds with minimal fear of retaliation. As tensions escalate, high-intensity games become demolition derbies: knocking an opponent senseless on a heavy hit is better than a goal by today’s standards, and there seems to be little resistance in the hockey community to such a distasteful turn in the culture.

The Proof is in the Pros

This isn’t merely the rambling of a cantankerous correspondent; the numbers support the argument.

In the NHL last season, the top ten hitters combined to register 3.49 hits per game. In 2005-06, the first year back after the lockout (and also the first with the new rules), the top ten hitters tallied 2.77 hits a game … and only three years prior- during the 2002-03 season – the league’s ten most prolific body-bashers only averaged 1.29 hits each game. If that’s not enough evidence to bear out the argument that hockey has gotten more violent, I don’t know what is.

Sweden, St. Louis, and SoCal: Oh My!

I would continue to argue that this isn’t borne strictly of rule changes and equipment development; this is the outcome of a gradual but major culture shift in the sport.

As ice hockey has blossomed beyond its natural climes in Canada, the Great Lakes region and New England, its constituency has obviously become more spread out. Players aren’t strictly funneling through the same tried-and-true hockey farms in the Canadian Juniors or the American prep schools … now, we’re seeing D-I lineups with such sources as the St. Louis Bandits, Topeka RoadRunners, New York Apple Core, IFK Helsinki, LA Hockey Club, Sodertalje SK, Team Illinois, and the Portland Jr. Pirates, to name a few.

This dispersal of talent leads to an understandable lack of familiarity in the ranks to an extent we’ve never seen before. In the past, many players would develop in or around the same systems, getting to know each other by playing together in the same teams, regions, leagues or camps. Even if you never wore the same sweater, you’d still develop a feeling of of respect for someone who grew up playing the game in the same places and with the same people that you did. Now, that loose sense of camaraderie is evaporating at a rapid pace.

Indestructible Youth

The final point to be made involves the NCAA cage rule. Now topping our big, strong, fast, young, angry, well-conditioned players is a piece of gear that renders them impervious to practically every puck, stick, elbow, or surface that might have otherwise posed a risk to their enthusiastic well-being.

The quandary is such: the arguments for the cage are well-intentioned and clear. One only need Google search “Bryan Berard” to understand what’s at risk here. However, there is an undeniable recklessness that is bred of this protective measure.

I challenge you to go to your next college hockey game with an eye out for high sticks: you’ll be shocked by how often the timber flies out of players’ control and conks, clips, and otherwise connects with somebody else’s noggin. NHL scouts confirm that college hockey products have far higher rates of high-sticking infractions early in their pro careers than those bred of cageless leagues.

Refs don’t notice many of these infractions because, quite simply, the players are so incubated from danger that they don’t even notice half of the time. What’s a victimized player to do, anyhow? Feign busted lip? Drawing the attention that a high stick most decidedly deserves isn’t even worth the target’s trouble.

While you’re watching, make a mental tally — if you dare — of how many hits you see that are high (delivered with hands/stick-first and legs straight), late (especially hits on players who have recently but clearly divested themselves of the puck already), or away from the play. You’ll notice that there is a clear premium on contact these days, as every player on the ice is looking to deliver a blow on every shift. Honestly, I don’t understand how this idea seeped into the game, but I do know that it’s got to stop before someone gets grievously injured.

Closing Statement

These aren’t original concerns, and this isn’t a groundbreaking thesis … but I won’t hesitate for a second to repeat it a thousand times over if it will make the game one iota safer.

The game can not survive on its current track. Look at football players: the average NFL career lasts only three and a half years, and rates of serious injury (especially concussions) are catastrophic. The current NHL average is five and a half years, which is incrementally shorter than the duration of the average MLB career, but longer than an NBA gig. Isn’t that a sustainable number, should we choose to sustain it?

Concussions are a hot-button issue at all levels of both hockey and football, and let me assure you, advances in protective helmet technology are not the best solution (though sincere kudos to Harvard for being proactive).

As McKenzie pointed out in a recent column,

“Bob Clarke, the former Philadelphia Flyer great, was on ‘Off The Record’ on TSN today and said with the NHL rules as they currently exist, he wouldn’t want to be a player in today’s NHL because it’s ‘too dangerous.’

Bob Clarke? Too dangerous? That’s astonishing. It’s one thing for a non-playing media person to make that assertion, quite another coming from a Hall of Famer of Broad Street Bully fame.”

If the NHL keeps rewarding otherwise talented players like Milan Lucic and Alexander Ovechkin for continually crossing the line between hard-nosed hockey and cheap goonery, that line will ultimately disappear entirely … as will the credibility of an entire sport.

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