Every hockey analyst and their dog has tried in vain to solve the concussion issue in hockey. I’m personally from the camp that suggests that there aren’t any more concussions in the game today as there were 5 or 10 years ago, but there is so much more reporting and scrutinizing of the injured players today that it boosts our number.
Where hockey is ahead of other sports in dealing with the concussion issue is that everybody seems vaguely aware that it exists. Fans have an odd way of dealing with it, however, creating the All-Concussed Squad applying a tinge of humour to the darkness. I don’t really have a problem with this, since it showcases who’s out and the severity of the issue, seeing how many stars are sitting on the sideline at any time.
Concussions and head-hits have begun to wane my enjoyment of football games. The helmet-to-helmet collision that knocks a guy out of the game is incredibly common, and it doesn’t look like the NFL or its media, fans or players seem aware at the severity of brain injuries just yet. Check out what happened to Pierre Thomas this weekend in the San Francisco-New Orleans playoff game:
Thomas just goes limp.
The commentator calls it a “great hit right there”, giving Donte Whitner, the guy who made the hit, credit for causing a fumble on the play. I have no idea why that hit is legal—there’s absolutely no reason why, in a sport where knocking somebody out isn’t the main goal, why it should be a positive play for your team to knock somebody out.
This type of hit was the NHL 10 years ago: “keep your head up!”
I’m not naive enough to think that concussions are an issue that can be solved overnight with the harsher penalization of head shots or an outright ban on fighting (although that would be a good start). It’s obvious that one of the problems pertains to the size of the ice, and that players are bigger, stronger, and fill up more space of the playing surface than ever before.
There’s been chatter about the NHL expanding to European-sized ice to compensate for the fact that players are much bigger than they were in 1920, but, really, that’s not even the nuclear option for the league. Making the ice-surface bigger may help in reducing some of the concussions that come as a result of too many players occupying the same spot on the ice at once (I think of this collision) the reality is that expanding 30 rinks to international standards and taking out a few rows of seats would cost an awful lot of money.
One thing I’m surprised about is how often it’s discussed to put the red line back into play, as in, re-introduce the two-line pass rule in an effort to slow down the game, particularly through the neutral zone. This has been a matter discussed on Coach’s Corner, our very own Backhand Shelf podcast, and by a few players asked for their opinions on the state of the game.
In particular, ex-NHLer Murray Costello, the vice-president of the IIHF who’s been put in charge of the organization’s concussion task force:
Mr. Costello said that change won’t come quickly and there may be opposition, but officials shouldn’t rule out rethinking body-checking, slowing down the pace by again outlawing the two-line pass, altering equipment or even the size of the ice surface.
I’m a little skeptical of the suggestion. A frequent reader and commenter of the blog, Sandwiches1123, sent The Backhand Shelf an e-mail last week taking issue with this argument:
Adding a red line is only going to make the area of play smaller. It’s not like defenders are only able to start skating at the red line if they “put it back in” as suggested. Nay, it just means that forwards breaking out can only go so far before a two-line pass is called and therefore reducing the area on the ice where they can receive the pass. Don’t you think that makes it easier for a defender to line up a forward breaking out of the zone? The defenseman knows that the pass can come to a smaller area of ice, thus increasing his ability to anticipate an opponent’s position and thus CLOCKING him.
It’s probably something that the IIHF will also consider if they put serious thought into re-inserting the red-line. Concussion data is pretty limited from the few years leading up to the lockout, when players still skated with the red line, so we don’t have a way of knowing for sure which way is safer.
Are you making the game slower, or are you just making the size of the ice, which the players have already outgrown, effectively smaller? You might be slowing the game down, but skaters will still be skating with reckless-abandon through the neutral zone, they’ll just be doing it in a smaller space.
Going further with our reader’s suggestion, to increase the size of the ice without physically increasing the size of the ice, you could fiddle around with some of the rules to try and keep a group of players out of the same area, or to maximize 4-on-4 situations (removing coincidental minors might somewhat accomplish this). One thing I’ve been mulling over is possibly limiting the number of icing calls, effectively getting rid of the red line entirely, by calling icing only if a puck is dumped into the other end from the player’s own zone.
There’s no real right answer to all this, but it’s nice to see that the NHL and IIHF have stepped up and taken charge, responding to suggestions and looking at solutions. Then again, no other sport has seen its best player out of the game for what seems like an eternity due to a concussion.