Sidney Crosby played 10 games in 2011, and has become the poster-boy for hockey's concussion debate.

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.

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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.

Comments (15)

  1. I think it’s pretty clear that the motivation for the red line rule originally was to bunch the game up and cause more collisions, the thought process that concludes it would help cause less concussions if reinstated is faulty.

  2. Wouldn’t the icing change suggested create more dangerous collisions? It would result in more full speed races for the puck towards the end boards.

    As it is now, if an offensive player is 4 or 5 steps behind the defender in a race for the puck on a delayed icing he might let up and let the play be blown dead. However, removing the redline entirely would give this offensive player a chance to chase down that defender and deliver a hit at full speed since that play won’t be blown dead when the defender touches the puck.

    • That’s where you can also bring in the hybrid touch-icing rule. I just think that giving players more options in the neutral zone can’t be a bad thing.

      • I think it would also open up the neutral zone because the defensive side has to be weary of the team just firing the puck into the zone from their own side of centre.

  3. Hey Cam,

    Thanks for the mention although I need to reign in my use of the word “thus”.

    I definitely agree with what you said in your introductory paragraph that concussion are essentially under the microscope now as opposed to a decade ago.

    I thought I read somewhere that Detroit was testing some soft cap shoulder and elbow pads to see what kind of affect that might have on the game. I know you won’t like this but I actually agree with something Don Cherry (amongst others) mentions occasionally: “the equipment is like armour”.

    If we really breakdown the statement, Cherry really means what other hard-cap opponents have said: The hard plastic being used may be the reason for many of the problems both directly (being a hard substance with no give) and in-directly (players willing to skate into a check must faster because their is less risk of personal injury).

    Again, this is not to say concussions haven’t always been an issue: hockey, just like football, is a contact sport and contact sports result in injuries. What the league should do is try to mitigate the severity of concussions as well as decrease their frequency.

  4. I saw the 49ers and Saints game, and that hit. It was blatantly obvious that he was knocked out. The hit was legal though. When running with the football, you have to get your shoulders low, or you’re going to be destroyed by a linebacker (or anyone). In order to tackle someone, you have to get low (and hopefully lower than the guy with the ball). When you lower your body, there is no way to not lead with your head. It is impossible to tackle someone standing straight up. There is no way to avoid these hits in football.

    Hockey is the exact opposite. People don’t skate, hit, or do anything hunching forward like in football. If they do, they get hit at a young age and learn not to do it.

    I do agree with Don Cherry though. The safer something is to the wearer, the more dangerous it becomes to others (generally). Maybe they should try making pads soft on the inside, soft on the outside, with a rigid piece of plastic in the middle. Shoulder and elbow pads seem to be the most effected. It doesn’t help that helmets get moved around, or even fall off when someone gets hit. Look at the hit by Dion Phaneuf on Michael Sauer earlier this year. If Sauer’s helmet stays on, his head is protected from hitting the lip of the boards.

  5. Sheese I’m a simpleton but it all seems so simple to me … late hits seem to account for the vast majority of injuries I’ve seen, either directly or in the ensuing fight.
    And if you listen to the announcer, you would think the entire responsibility should land on the checkee (“he didn’t keep his head up” “he wasn’t being aware of his surroundings”"he went in too straight”).
    Whereas the checker gets kudos for “finishing their check”, even though the puck was released a hockey-eternity ago.
    The fix is simple, as it is with so much:, literal interpretation of the existing rules. You hit somebody after they release the puck, it’s a penalty. Even a milisecond late. This puts the onus back where it belongs, on the checker.
    And to show you are really serious, you review any injury where a player leaves the game. If the check wasn’t 100% clean, the checker takes an indefinite misconduct equivalent to the convalescence of the injured player, up to a season.
    Radical. But something should have been done a long time ago.

    • What do you do when some 4th line player gets hit by an Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin, Datsyuk, etc and gets hurt on an illegal check? Think they’re going to rush back to play as quickly as possible? What happens when they’re ready to come back, but there isn’t a spot for them on the roster, and they’re held on IR longer than they normally would be (like Wolski for the Rangers). He was ready to come back, but the team was playing well, and there just wasn’t a roster spot for him. If someone made an illegal check on him, and had to sit because of it, they would have been sitting for an extra month. That’s not right.

      A punishment should not have anything to do with the injury. Whether a person gets a broken leg or just a bruise shouldn’t matter. Punish the act, not the outcome.

      • Good points. Although, to your last point, “drawing blood” is an outcome-based penalty.
        However I think I have the perfect solution – give the guy in the scorer’s table that device that Dr. “Bones” McCoy had on Star Trek, that medical scanner thingy. (I am pretty sure they are currently available at Best Buy in some states.) They can scan the injured player, then, set their phaser on a corresponding level of injury, and shoot the perpetrator!
        Now THAT’s justice, Brendan Shanahan, Old Testament justice!

    • I’m not sure i believe your statement that most concussions come as a result of a late hit for starters, but lets assume that is true. Your suggestion that any hit made after the puck has been released would be extremely difficult for anybody to assess and enforce. Essentially, you’d be removing body checks from the game because nobody in their right mind would attempt one.

      • yeah no doubt, super hard to assess … but currently we have people trying to assess whether or not the checker could have stopped, did the checker’s momentum carry them forward, etc. . I have actually heard USAHockey refs saying “this year we’ll only give you 2 strides instead of 3″. At least with a literal interpretation of a hard definition you would have a starting point.
        “Essentially, you’d be removing body checks from the game because nobody in their right mind would attempt one.”
        You might be right, it would at the very least entirely change the complexion of the game. But personally I’d trade a lot of the checking if it meant less injuries. Not just for my kids, but even for guys making a ton of money to entertain us … I find hockey fights/open ice checks kind of a guilty pleasure; it’s super exciting, but at the same time the idea that we pay people to endure serious injury for our entertainment is a little disconcerting/Rome-esque (the ancient civilization, not the d-bag with a radio show).

  6. “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.”

    This is an interesting thing to look at…by limiting icings the race for the puck wouldn’t be devoted to merely touching it, and thus there might be more footraces but fewer broken legs as a result. However, I’m not entirely sure about that one. If it’s combined with the addition of no-touch icing, I’d definitely give it a shot.

    • yes, and you could send 2 guys in knowing that you likely just have to outman 1 defender… eventually I think this would open up the neutral zone.

  7. I think that a great solution to the problem is limiting the size and “protective ability” of the players’ equipment. If it hurts you to finish a check on your opponent than you may think twice about finishing that check.

    Furthermore if it hurts like hell to step in front of a slap shot with little-to-no protection on you may also second guess that; which could increase the amount of shots on goal and potential goals. It’s kind of a two birds with one stone idea that doesn’t call for some drastic side show skills competition like a shoot-out to decide a hard fought hockey game.

  8. I never want to see the two line pass come back. I don’t think you could find a single person who would say the pace of games was better before the rule was removed.

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