Head Games

Posted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel

Hockey is a great game, but it’s not without its flaws. Those of us who have loved it all our lives are always anxious to see its positive points accentuated and its black marks eradicated. To me, there is more than a bit of a crisis going on in the game right now at virtually every level. That crisis has to do with head injuries, and let’s face it, when you’re talking about head injuries at the NHL level, you’re talking about quality of life and the livelihood of the players. Anyone who has had their bell rung knows how disorienting and painful a head injury can be, and lingering head injuries are even more so. We’ve come a long way from the days when professional hockey players roamed ice sheets with their flowing locks flapping in the breeze, uncontained by helmets, and the diagnosis and treatment of head injuries is better than it was in those days as well. But the speed of the NHL game is much greater than it was then, and the players are also larger. Add in bulkier equipment and players are sometimes human projectiles traveling at high rates of speed. Those perils of the modern NHL are reflected in the league’s injured reserve list. Dozens of players have missed hundreds of games because of head injuries, and careers have been and are hanging in the balance as a result of head injuries. At least the league’s board of governors, its general managers, its disciplinary arm and other caretakers of the game realize the need to take action to curtail such injuries, and they’ve taken significant steps in that regard. Sometimes the punishment meted out is still on the inconsistent side, but the effort is being made. That’s so important. Hockey can and must be played without hits that target the head. Lingering head injuries generally have no timetable for return. We’ve seen multiple players miss more than a year because of head injuries, cutting into the already limited window in which an NHL player has in which to ply his trade. We’ve seen careers end because of head injuries. The problem is sadly not limited to the professional level. I spent the NHL’s all-star break weekend going to my 13-year-old son’s bantam games, one in Harrisburg on Saturday and another in Laurel on Sunday. I’ve been a hockey dad for a decade now, and I enjoy spending those early morning weekend days in the rink watching the game I love. Watching my son play is a bonus; I’m on the road a lot and don’t get to see all his games. When kids start playing hockey, it’s a non-contact sport. Early emphasis is on skating, as it should be. The finer points are added in gradually along the way. Hitting is introduced just before the teen years. Coaches then need to teach their players how to properly deliver hits, as well as how to absorb them properly and how to avoid putting yourself in a more vulnerable position. Just as is the case in the NHL, illegal hits and hits to the head are a fact of life in youth hockey. Unlike the NHL, however, sometimes those who are in a position to police those illegal hits are more concerned with posturing than prevention. I witnessed such a case on Sunday. Early in the game, a player issued a hard two-handed shove to an opposing player just a couple of feet from the boards in front of the players’ benches. Regardless of intent, it was a greasy hit that could have caused a serious injury. I’ve seen similar hits result in suspensions at the NHL level. Not this one. The ref issued a two-minute minor. The offended team’s coaches responded predictably; they issued a verbal plea for a “two and ten.” That’s a two-minute minor, plus an extra 10-minute “misconduct” penalty. That’s the standard call for such an offense at the youth hockey level, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player get two of them in the same game. Most kids get one, realize the error of their ways, and they pull back. As it should be. It’s meant to be a deterrent. Youth hockey benches aren’t as deep as they are at the pro level and periods are only 15 minutes in length. Teams can’t afford to be missing players for essentially an entire period. One of the refs told the coach to “shut his mouth.” Without profanity or rancor, the coach asked if a “two and a ten” would be assessed. He was told no. The coach then replied, “Of course not.” At this point, his team was assessed a bench minor that negated the power play his team was to be getting for the hit from behind. The coach was also warned, “One more word and you’re gone.” To which he replied, “yes, sir.” That’s two words, but it still got him banished for the remainder of the game, seven minutes into the first period. Clearly, this wasn’t about protecting the kids or having a safe environment in which to learn a great game. It was about two guys wearing striped shirts giving an authoritarian display of power, leaving no doubt about who was the boss. Predictably, the greasy hits from behind and the elbows to the head escalated. There was even a slew foot. Some of those violations were called, some were not. Nowhere along the line was a “two and ten” penalty doled out. At game’s end, one of the assistant coaches (who was left to run the bench in the head coach’s absence) approached one of the officials to try to gain some understanding, only to be curtly and summarily dismissed. I witnessed this exchange, and made a comment of my own to this official, a comment that was made in a normal tone of voice and without profanity. The official told me that I would have to leave the building. Because again, it is much more important to show what a big and powerful man you are with your black and white striped shirt than to foster any meaningful dialogue about hits to the head or trying to curtail or prevent them. Don’t worry, I didn’t leave. He told me to leave again, and again I refused. I was waiting by the locker room door for my son and that’s where I told him I’d be staying. He told me he’d have me removed. I told him he was welcome to try. Some point thereafter, an official from the rink politely asked me to depart. Just as politely, I declined. At this point I was told the police would be called to remove me. I told them to go right ahead. “Sir, you don’t want your son to see you getting arrested,” came the pleas from some of the parents of the other team. They meant well enough, I guess, but they had no idea what I had said or what was going on. And they clearly don’t know me very well, either. I’d actually welcome my son witnessing me getting arrested for whatever it was they were going to arrest me for. No one could tell me. Not the ref, not the rink people. They could tell me that I had to leave, and that I would be arrested if I didn’t. But they couldn’t tell me why. I find it richly illuminating that these two were more concerned with what was being said about them or to them than they were for the safety of the 30 or so kids on the ice for that game. I’m not one of those eternally vocal and belligerent hockey parents. I see them from time to time, and that’s not me. I don’t yell during games, not even at my own kid. I clap. I keep my mouth shut, and I watch the game. What’s the point? I trust the coaches and the officials. Unfortunately, that trust was misplaced on Sunday. A lot of the youth hockey officials I encounter are good at what they do, conscientious about their calls and explanations, and they are caring individuals who have respect, regard and – perhaps most importantly – feel for the game. Not these two on this day, not at all, not even close. They were surly, antagonistic, arrogant. I wouldn’t want my kids around them in any environment, ever. Why expose formative minds to that? It only takes one hit on one day to alter a kid’s life for the worse for a long time. I guess these guys can live with that. And I can live with getting “arrested.” Ridding the game of gratuitous head shots is paramount at every level, but especially at the youth level. On this, I’m not moving. Still waiting for the cuffs.

next up:

Rusted or Rested?

January 14, 2013

Washington gets back to the business of playing hockey tonight in Tampa, after a five-day layoff for the NHL’s All-Star break. The last time the Caps were off the ice for five consecutive days, it was because it was still summer and they hadn’t reported to training camp yet. Now the Caps will head

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