Tuesday night, like many nights before it, could’ve been the moment. The moment we all secretly fear. The moment a game changes, and a life is lost, played out in real time, instant-replayed as if every play deserves a second look, even when it hurts.
The call will come too late the first time a hockey player dies on national television. People, then, will truly question the role of fighting in this mix of soccer, lacrosse, and ballet on ice. They’ll think back to how naive they were to question progress in the name of that old, tired argument that has defended history’s many mistakes: “But this is the way we’ve always done it.”
In 2009, there were no cameras to capture the tragedy that might’ve challenged tradition.
Don Sanderson was a notorious fighter on the ice, a member of the Whitby Dunlops, a senior-league club team in Canada. He’d entered the foray, the fight, that we’ve all seen. Grabbed jerseys. Inconsequential punches. The typical mono-y-mono macho-fest that gets the fans beating on the glass in primordial bliss.
But then he fell to the ice. An unmovable object provided the blow to his head that would kill him.
Four years later, on a much bigger stage, the scene looked eerily similar. Only this time, the player’s eyes opened. A stretcher removed him from the scary scene, and quickly, from our conscious. And the game moved on.
Because this is the way we’ve always done it.
On Tuesday night, Montreal Canadien George Parros found himself in a scuffle with Colton Orr of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The worst seemed to be over until Orr, already prostrate on the ice, pulled Parros to the hard floor by his jersey. And like Sanderson before him, his face hit the ice before his arms could brace for impact.
And for a second, it looked like the moment.
Orr completely shifts gears, clearly concerned by what he sees. Parros lies motionless, blood oozing from his chin. An arena, otherwise ravenous, falls quiet. When he awakes and moves, a sport almost audibly sighs in relief.
The way hockey has always been done…was safe.
Or is it?
Already, the sport of hockey and the NHL has started to confront the new information on head injuries, aware that, much like football, this pastime of the north has left many brains addled, many players suffering.
George Parros’s concussion is just the latest on a long-list of concussions suffered in the National Hockey League.
The shoe started to drop with a story published by the Canadian Press (and TSN), citing a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that had chronicled head injuries in professional hockey from 1997-2004. That study claimed that 559 concussions had been suffered in that span, a number that includes 5.8 of every 100 players. 18% of those concussion victims had lost consciousness.
Those numbers should be startling. But the real news was the fact that this was just the tip of the iceberg. Considering that concussions were still being trivialized during this study, the amount of unreported cases, according to some estimates, was astronomical. Because that’s the way hockey had always been played –through the pain.
In 2011, the NHL instituted rule changes to eliminate purposeful shots to the head. Injuries were piling up, on and off the ice.
Unsurprisingly, these rule changes were met with criticism. Hockey players don’t seek a softer sport. But it was becoming increasingly evident that the NHL had to protect its players from themselves.
According to a study described in the New York Times in 2011, only 14% of concussions suffered in the season prior to rule changes happened on hits that would be legal under the new rules. So it seemed like a step in the right direction, eliminating, or at least deterring, hits that were leading to serious head trauma.
But with concern over head injury the new flavor of the month, there was an obvious topic left off the docket: fighting –a common hockey incident literally defined by repeated blows to the head and falls to the ice.
This oversight seemed even more egregious considering a study at the time by a medical group in Boston, who had examined the brains of four former players; the results were troubling. The study was headlined by the recently deceased Derek Boogaard, who had died of an overdose after battling crippling head pain and depression. All four players had CTE from repeated head trauma.
Here was the kicker: three of them had a notorious history of fighting in the league.
Hockey will never be a safe game. It is fast. It is violent. It is, by its nature, a sport of collisions, of flying bodies, of merciless hits. Even after rule changes helped head shots decline, nearly 90 players sat out due to concussions and head injuries in 2012, according to US News and World Report. But the inevitable injuries suffered when giant men glide across friction-free ice shouldn’t keep the league from acting in their best interest.
Because people are suffering when they leave hockey behind.
That same article by the US News and World Report cited a study conducted by McGill and Toronto University that looked into the lives of former players who’d suffered head trauma in the past. The suffering hadn’t stopped when they left the ice. Excruciating headaches, memory loss, and suicidal thoughts were commonplace among them.
But they suffer in relative silence. Because hockey is a game defined by its toughness. And no one wants to see that threatened by the harsher realities beyond the arenas.
So I will not propose a hockey where the walls are made of foam. Where players can’t touch. Where pucks are made of feathers, and skates replaced with skis. The speed, the collisions –those are parts of the game. I understand that.
Fighting doesn’t have to be.
If we are still so inclined to watch grown men prove their toughness through bare knuckles and bleeding faces, there are sports for that: MMA, UFC, boxing, to name a few. Like a brawl in baseball, though, it’s not a beautiful component of an otherwise streamlined sport.
Look at college hockey. The games still excite the crowds. But fighting isn’t allowed. Head shots aren’t allowed. And yet, no one could argue the sport is softer. Those bodies still bang, those noses still bleed. So if the game is marginally safer, and doesn’t suffer, why resist?
I know, I know; because this is the way it’s always been.
And it still could be. Look at the hit above. This is a legal, permissible, hit. No launching to the head. And no punches thrown, I might add. This isn’t the game, the style, that needs to go.
This is what needs to go.
Because when tragedy strikes, “this is the way we’ve always played” won’t cut it. It’s one thing for accidents to happen in the flow of the game. Football players have died with hits to the spine. Basketball players have died when their hearts give way to adrenaline. Baseball players have died when struck by leather and seams. But what you see above; that isn’t hockey at its essence.
It’s too men stopping the game to start something much less necessary: a sideshow.
Hockey would survive this sideshow being written from the sport. Just like basketball not only survived, but thrived, when new rules in the 1990s stopped letting defensive players assault incoming guards with hand and body checks. Just like football survived, and thrived, when they added face masks to their helmets.
More importantly, perhaps, a player that otherwise wouldn’t have will survive. A player like Don Sanderson will get a second-chance to pick up the stick.
An opinion like this will always be met my predictable opposition. “You’re a pansy!” “Don’t be soft!” “It’ll ruin the sport!” “Look how much they are getting paid, who cares if they are safe? It’s worth it!” These phrases have been uttered again and again as sports progress. Sadly, they often delay the steps forward.
But eventually, a courageous leader steps in and changes the sport for the better, not for its tradition, but its future.
Because THAT’s the way we’ve always done it.
Why stop now? George Parros will survive despite the scary scene and being removed on a stretcher. So, too, will the game, once it decides to wheel its tradition of useless violence out of the arenas.
Sadly, to do so, the sport will have to drop its gloves and fight against its powerful past.
And hope this cause doesn’t fall on its face.