Friday, March 4, 2011

The NHL's War Within

Prior to Islanders "enforcer" Trevor Gillies' meeting with the NHL's top disciplinarian (and former Penguin) Colin Campbell, it is necessary to re-evaluate the way that head injuries are addressed.

Since David Steckel threw the "shoulder heard 'round the world" into the side of Sidney Crosby's head, the issue of head shots and concussions have been thrust back into the forefront. Recent events involving Gillies, along with the recent results of the brain analysis on the late Bob Probert have only added fuel to the fire.

The NHL has a problem. Much like the one the faced this past year. And they can learn from each other. To call the way the NFL handled the issue of unnecessary head shots a miserable failure would be an insult to miserable failure. The early season rule changes greatly confused players, officials, coaches and eventually, the rule-makers themselves (who, in many cases, reduced the fines they had previously set).

The punishment that will be handed down to Gillies today will serve as a crossroads for the NHL on this issue. If they come down too lenient (less than six games), they will be seen as continuing to ignore the elephant in the room. If they make an example of Gillies, by say, suspending him for the remainder of the season, they will be chastised for arbitrarily changing the nature of the game itself. Hockey has always been a brutal sport, and has often embraced players like Gillies, the tough guy that always has the back of his teammates.

So where can the NHL draw the line? Repeat offenders? Intent to injure?

The fact is this: no matter what the NHL does today, it cannot save it from itself. Hockey will never be a concussion-free sport. The unfortunate circumstances that fell Sidney Crosby WILL happen again. Whether it be from a hired goon like Trevor Gillies or a gritty (but clean), blue-collar player like Dave Steckel. It simply cannot be stopped. We can do something about deliberate head shots like Gillies, but those are only a small fraction of the problem. Most of the concussions in the NHL come from hits like Steckel's; incidental contact at high speeds and in blind spots.

This war being waged within the circles of the NHL can have no winners. The true issue is not violence in the NHL, it's the violence of the NHL. If anything, the NHL needs to have more of a vested interest in technology that can minimize concussions (just ask the scientists who have been working on new NFL helmets), rather than worrying about whether or not to render judgement on every play where somebody is injured, which is exactly what the NFL did this past season.

The Gillies' incidents shouldn't be seen as an opportunity to make an example, it should be seen as an opportunity to have a closer look at preventative measures that can be taken in the future. Then, and only then, can the NHL truly address this issue.

Just ask Sidney Crosby about it.

Update: Gillies given a 10 game suspension. Seems appropriate to me.

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