Senin, 19 Desember 2011

Healing hockey's headache

By Mark Madden
Beaver County Times
December 18, 2011

MONTREAL, CANADA - NOVEMBER 26: Kris Letang(notes) #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is tended to by Pittsburgh Penguins staff after being hit by Max Pacioretty(notes) #67 of the Montreal Canadiens (not pictured) during the NHL game at the Bell Centre on November 26, 2011 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Penguins defeated the Canadiens 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

Right now, hockey is a war of attrition. That's just a phrase, something you might hear on SportsCenter. It's not supposed to be taken literally, let alone true.

But the following NHL players are currently sidelined with concussions:

* The Penguins' Sidney Crosby, the league's best player.

* Philadelphia's Claude Giroux, tied for the scoring lead before last night's action.

* Ottawa's Milan Michalek, until recently the league's top goal-scorer.

* Carolina's Jeff Skinner, last season's Calder Trophy winner as best rookie.

* The Penguins' Kris Letang, the NHL's premier young defenseman.

Injuries are part of hockey. But they shouldn't ruin hockey.

Perhaps most depressing about hockey's concussion epidemic is that no moves are being made to halt it. Treatment is better. Technology has improved. Caution is omnipresent.

But what should the NHL do to solve the problem? To cut down on concussions? To be proactive?

Here are three things, to start:

* Adopt no-touch icing. That eliminates a ton of mindless collisions.

* Ban all head shots. Don't judge case-by-case. Ditch the gray area.

* Ban fighting. Bare-knuckled punches to the head have nothing to do with hockey.

The NHL could adopt all three measures immediately and it would not change the way hockey is played one bit.

Would concussions be eliminated? Hardly. But you'd lessen the chances.

Don't hold your breath. Bill Masterson of the Minnesota North Stars died in 1968 when he smashed his bare head on the ice after being checked. The NHL didn't make helmets mandatory until 1979. Even then, veterans who had played without helmets could finish their careers without donning one. One dead guy? No big deal. Concussed superstars? Ditto.

The NHL is watching marketable assets drop like flies, but doing nothing to stem the tide. Medical advancement helps after the fact. But to prevent concussions -- to keep the Crosbys, Girouxs and Skinners on the ice -- you need to change the game.

Shoulder and elbow pads are hard as steel and can be used as weapons. Hear anybody discussing adjustments? No.

Helmet technology could be improved. Add more padding, or outside padding. Make full face cages mandatory. Hear anybody talking about that? No.

The NHL wants tough to equal skill. Always. Changes aren't forthcoming. Concuss to your heart's content.

No-touch icing should be a no-brainer. Blow the whistle when the puck crosses the goal line. How often does that race for the puck produce anything memorable or positive?

Until you discipline all head shots, players won't try to avoid them. That's the key, creating a culture of avoidance. If there's a gray area, players believe they might beat the rap.

The New York Times published a series of articles on the late NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard earlier this month. The revelations contained therein should be enough to get rid of fighting. Boogaard's brain was literally beaten senseless. The NHL rule allowing fighting has been around since 1917. That defines antiquated.

These changes, hopefully, would take a bite out of concussions. If not, hockey might have to go further: Bigger rinks. Playing four-on-four all the time. One-stride checking instead of two. Minimizing or eliminating contact in certain areas of the ice.

Those changes are drastic. No-touch icing, banning head shots, banning fighting -- those are not. They're simple. Easy to apply. The NHL has to start somewhere.

But the NHL won't start anywhere. The NHL won't change. The league pays lip service to the welfare of its players, but it doesn't care. Be tough. That's what matters.

The Stanley Cup champion won't be the best team. It will be the team that gets luckiest with injuries. Excuse me if I don't watch. My brain hurts.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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