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Is This the Year Tragedy Hits the NHL?

Nov 24, 2009 – 1:00 PM
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Christopher Botta

Christopher Botta %BloggerTitle%


There once was a time when an NHL season could be recalled by one major, frightening on-ice incident. Now it seems there is one a week. The new scenes are etched in a hockey fan's mind like a movie buff citing favorite acts of violence directed by Coppola, Scorcese or Tarantino.

Derek Dorsett of the Blue Jackets falls to his knees after having his head slammed into the glass on a hit from behind by Dallas forward James Neal on Nov. 19. Dorsett attempts to collect himself but then crumbles to the ice, concussed, looking like he'd been shot.



Caught looking the wrong way, David Booth of the Panthers is obliterated with a shoulder check from Philadelphia's Mike Richards on Oct. 25. If the hit hasn't done enough damage, Booth's head slams to the ice and he lay motionless for several seconds.



There are plenty more. Vancouver defenseman Willie Mitchell, just exiting the penalty box, rocks Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews at center ice with a shoulder-to-shoulder hit on Oct. 21. While reaching for the puck, Islanders right wing Kyle Okposo is crushed in the neutral zone by Calgary's Dion Phaneuf. Okposo is taken off the ice on a stretcher. This one's in an exhibition game on Sept. 17, during the first week of training camp.

In recent seasons, the NHL's marketing arm created variations on the theme, "Is this the Year...?" Now I can't help but wonder:

Is this the year the NHL sees a tragedy on the ice?

As I deliberated, at times agonized over writing this, I spoke face-to-face with more than two-dozen NHL players in the month since the David Booth incident. (Booth remains out with a concussion, with very little improvement in his symptons.) This is a very touchy subject in a league of Tough Guys, so anonymity was requested and granted. There was, however, unanimity in their thoughts. A summary:

* The players recognize that the quantity and severity of incidents have increased this season.

* More than ever, the importance of skating at all times with your head up is crucial. But as one player said, "There are always going to be brief moments, even with the most skilled players, when you have your head on the puck or looking the wrong way. When the league or the broadcasters or anyone else blames an injury on the injured guy for putting himself in a vulnerable position, they're usually being unrealistic."

* Although their equipment prevents injuries, certain pads -- especially the shoulder pads -- are causing more damage when used by the checker.

* The escalation in serious incidents has not been discussed in conference calls within the NHL Players Association. "Unfortunately, there are other issues there," said a member, alluding to dissension in the ranks and lack of an executive director.

* Because the players are bigger and stronger than ever, they have to show more respect for one another.

"I just think most of us look at it like hockey has always been a tough game, and we knew that when we chased the NHL dream."
-- Anonymous Player on the Game's Physicality
That last one has fallen on deaf ears for a generation. "Trouble is," said a veteran of 12 NHL seasons, "I've been hearing that since I came into the league. Even after a situation like the lockout, where you'd think we would be bonded together, the lack of respect has only become worse."

Since the players cannot police themselves -- unrealistic in a game of so much physicality and emotion -- the responsibility falls to the league. On Nov. 11, it was announced that the NHL's general managers were forming a committee to "take a closer a look" at the epidemic of hits to the head. A rule change could come in the future.

But there's a big problem with that. While there needs to be process, hundreds of NHL games are going to be played before the committee begins to make its recommendations at the next general managers meetings in March. The league has acknowledged there is a serious problem, but nothing will be done until the start of next season -- at the earliest and if change comes at all.

Until then, NHL games are the Wild, Wild West.

Besides the controversial increase in hits to the head, hockey features frontier justice. The trouble is, "heavyweights" are a lot bigger and pumped up than they used to be. The tired defense that "no one gets hurt in a hockey fight" got old a long time ago.

I just happened to stumble upon a Vancouver-Calgary game on the Center Ice package Oct. 16 and this fight stuck with me although there has been little chatter about it. While another scrap took place in the second period, the Flames' Brian McGrattan and Canucks' Darcy Hordichuk squared off. As always, the 6-1, 215-pound Hordichuk was willing and able, but the 6-4, 235-pound McGrattan had a clear size and strength advantage. After they battled evenly for about 20 seconds, McGrattan shook off his right elbow pad, pumped a fist and landed a huge blow squarely on the jaw. Hordichuk's lights clearly go out upon contact.



Incredibly, Hordichuk was not injured, but you cannot help but wonder reviewing the tape how others may have responded to the force of McGrattan's punch.

The NHL is in an unenviable spot here, maybe an impossible one. At its best, hockey is an exhilarating game -- the best spectator sport on earth. No one is advocating for the elimination of hitting, few for the abolishment of fighting in the NHL. But there is no debating that it's getting very dangerous out there.

"It's nothing we sit around in the locker room discussing," a highly-respected alternate captain from the Southeast Division told me last week. "But there have been a few times this season when we'll be in the room after practice with the NHL Network on, and the latest big hit is replayed and analyzed. You never want to see what happened to a good guy like Booth. We're concerned. I just think most of us look at it like hockey has always been a tough game, and we knew that when we chased the NHL dream."

Let's hope the dream never ends tragically.
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