NHL Concussion Prevention Should Be Top Priority

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 24: Aaron Ekblad #5 and Michael Matheson #56 of the Florida Panthers go up against Shane Prince #11 of the New York Islanders during the second period in Game Six of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Barclays Center on April 24, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Concussion prevention should be number one on the list for player safety in the NHL. Hockey comes with hard hitting and fighting and there will be injuries. Concussions seem to be near the top of the injuries list lately. A major contributor is illegal hits to the head. Adopting change could make hockey safer for all players.

NHL Concussion Prevention Should Be Top Priority

Early Adopters

The NHL has come a long way since its helmetless days starting back in the 1920’s. Heck, even goalies went maskless. But a member of the Boston Bruins, George Owen, decided to change things (although there is no official record of it). Owen appears to be the first to don a helmet in the 1928-1929 season. Owen wore the same leather helmet that he wore while playing college football for Harvard.

Early NHL hockey could be brutal. On December 12, 1933, Bruins defenseman, Eddie Shore, in retaliation from a hit, crushed Ace Bailey from behind. The nasty hit flipped Bailey backwards and his head hit the ice. Bailey almost died from serious head injuries. Soon after, Bruins coach Art Ross, came up with a helmet design and most of his Boston Bruins players wore them. The problem? It only lasted for a single game. In the 1930’s, the Toronto Maple Leafs were ordered to wear helmets but a frustrated King Clancy tossed his away early into the first game. A few players, however, continued to play with the helmets.

The death of Bill Masterson, from a brain injury during a game in 1968 between the Minnesota North Stars and the Oakland Seals, changed many players’ thoughts about head injuries. The 1970’s ushered in change and helmets started to appear more. Ted Green of the Boston Bruins, who had a serious head injury himself, was an early adopter of the helmet.

The Very Cool 1970’s

For me, nothing was cooler than watching the Big, Bad, Bruins back in the 1970s. Your favourite player flying up ice with his long hair flowing in the wind and on top of that, you could clearly see his face! It’s no longer the seventies though. Today, the players are bigger stronger and faster than ever. Pucks are blasted at upwards of 90 mph and the body checks can be felt right through your TV screen.

In 1979-80, the NHL finally made helmets mandatory for any player coming into the league from then on. Players had their opinions on helmets. Many felt the helmet took away the “respect factor” and actually made the game less safe. Because of the helmet players started to take more liberties with hits to the head. Sticks got up into players faces and heads more often, which in turn, is why players eventually added visors for eye protection.

Eliminate Hitting? (to some degree)

Did I just get your attention? Hitting is a huge part of hockey and I’m not at all saying to eliminate it. Just do more to clean up the dirty intentional hits. These hits are causing unnecessary concussions and are ruining player’s careers and in some case their lives.

Eric Lindros, the number one overall pick, selected by (but never played for) the Quebec Nordiques in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft, was a star with immense skill but was also a target! Lindros played 13 seasons in the NHL starting in 1992-93. Lindros, a huge body at 6-foot 4, 230 pounds, played a physical brand of hockey. Bone crunching illegal hits to the head took its toll on the big guy. The star forward, whose career was cut short, recently brought up a hot topic about hitting in the NHL. Lindros would like to see them clean up the illegal hits.

Today, Lindros still finds time to play non-contact pickup hockey. Lindros says he has just as much fun and enjoyment without the contact.

See You Next Summer

NHL players stay in great shape during the off-season and a way to get in a great workout is play in a summer hockey league. Guess what? These leagues are non-contact and similar to what Lindros plays in. You see the immense speed and skill and the games are just as enjoyable to watch. The positive? No concussions!

This summer I attended the “Foxboro Pro League” (FPL) in Foxboro, Massachusetts. All the local NHL, AHL, college and junior players compete in a six-team league. There are a few of these summer leagues. There is “da Beauty League” and the “Chicago Pro Hockey League“. If you live anywhere near these leagues or others, I implore you to check them out.

Will the NHL become a non-contact league? You already know the answer to that question. What non-contact leagues demonstrate is that changes can be made to make the game safer. The players respect each other in the summer leagues. Why? Nobody wants an injury before the start of development or training camps.

Eliminate Fighting?

We’ve all watched plenty of hockey and have witnessed some brutal games with multiple fights and/or bench-clearing brawls. Fighting is still a contributor to the concussion issue. For many fans, fighting is one of the best features of hockey but let me say one thing: it’s not you getting the concussion. The NHL could simply change the rules to, “if you fight, you’re done” for the game or even make it a 10-minute penalty.

Get Your Head in the Game

Example, the Boston Bruins recently played the Edmonton Oilers in an October 11, 2018, regular season tilt. Bruin Chris Wager, who was third in the league last season with 253 hits, clocked Edmonton forward, Jujhar Khaira with a shoulder to the head area hit. I’m not saying it was intentional or even a penalty. Khaira’s head was somewhat down as he was coming out of his teams end. Hits like these though, get tempers flaring!

Retaliation is coming!

A bit later, Oiler Drake Caggiula hit Bruin David Backes in the head area. Backes fell and looked a bit stunned sitting on the ice. The B’s big guy happens to have a concussion history and is likely why he became Caggiula’s target. The big Bruin’s forward retaliated by hitting Caggiula back and in a tussle, Backes’ face appears to hit the ice. Two hits to the head already. Backes went off the ice and wasn’t seen for a while possibly for concussion protocol. Backes returned and later in the game, was intentionally smacked in the face area by an Oiler. Backes fell backwards to the ice. Three hits to the head in a single game for a player with a history of concussions!

Later in the game, Khaira nailed Bruins defenseman John Moore into the boards resulting in Moore hitting his face. This was clear-cut retaliation for Wagner’s original hit. Later, Bruin Kevin Miller drops the mitts with Khaira to show him some love. One game, repeated hits to the head for multiple players. Most of these hits to the head were intentional. Get the picture? Where is the respect factor now? Helmets or not, there isn’t any.

One final note. Even with today’s hockey helmet, most players usually do not have them strapped on correctly for improved safety.

The NHL should do more for its players to prevent concussions. Increase fines and lengthen suspensions for illegal hits to the head BUT there is already a fantastic solution…

Orange Paint?

Thomas E. Smith, a member of the Boston Bulldogs Junior A 2009 (now defunct) team, was paralyzed from board related accidents in hockey. He invented something called “The Look-Up Line”. It works similar to a baseball warning track and it’s an incredible idea.

This orange warning track starts at the boards and extends 40 inches in width around the entire rink. “The Look-Up Line” warn players to keep their heads up when approaching the boards to decrease the risk of getting hurt. It also warns a player to be careful not to body check the opponent from behind. Players have the opportunity to make the proper body adjustments before getting hit.

I think the NHL should usher in this idea immediately. This simple, yet effective, orange warning track should reduce concussions and head injuries. Many hockey rinks around the country have already added “The Look-Up Line”.

Painful Links

Click on the following names: Eric Lindros, Nick Boynton, Joe Murphy(who is now homeless), Rick Nash and Patrice Bergeron and it might change your view about concussions resulting from illegal hits to the head or fighting in the NHL.

Image Credit:
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