Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Headshots in the NHL

I love this sport (Editor’s note: If you’re not a hockey fan, stop reading now)

For almost as long as I have been able to understand and speak the English language, I have been a fan of hockey. I clearly remember being in grade 3 in the fall of 1991, walking from PE back to the classroom and hearing my peers talking about this new Russian player burst onto the ice the previous night against something called the Winnipeg Jets. This would be my first introduction to the sport. Not knowing anything about hockey, hockey players, or the NHL, I did what any self-respecting 8 year old would do. I totally bulls---ed my way through the conversation. As soon as I got my next allowance in my hot little hands though, I hightailed it our local 7-11 and picked up some hockey cards and thus planting the seed for my love of the game.

In 1994, I watched the Vancouver Canucks make it all the way to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals with my parents. Even my mom - who has never claimed to be a fan of the sport - got wrapped up in all the excitement and it formed quite fond memory of the three of us all sitting around this tiny TV set, praying for a miracle. My mom and I were gripping each others' hands as Pat Quinn made the decision to pull "Captain" Kirk McLean and I would soon fight off tears as the ticker tape wound down and the Rangers, led by Mark Messier (don't even get me started on him), would take the game and the Stanley Cup.

I love the sport so much, that I played it for a few years as a (damn good) net minder in high school with some incredibly talented players (one of my teammates was even an Olympic prospect for a bit!). I had an amazing coach who adored the game, and showed us the integrity, art and beauty of the sport. We learned to become responsible citizens, and respected and took great pride in the fact that when we donned our Joker jerseys, we were representing our school and our schoolmates. We took that job very seriously, but we also had a lot of fun with one another. Many of my teammates were as quick with a smile as they were with the puck.

I’m a mother now, and my fiancé and I watched the sport all through my pregnancy with our son, and I have often joked that I’m raising a future Canucks net minder. In fact, during the very late stages of my pregnancy, we watched as the Canucks faced the Dallas Stars on Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarter-Finals which led to the sixth longest game in NHL history, going to 4OT when Henrik Sedin was able to convert a pass from his brother Daniel, and end the game with less than two minutes left. I was in labour at the time, and really wanted to make sure I was able to watch the whole game from start to finish. I was hoping against hope that our baby would just hold off for another day (apparently I wished too hard, because he wouldn’t show his face for almost another 3 weeks).

I can’t imagine not being a fan of hockey. I can’t picture my family and I not sitting together around a TV watching with baited breath as our team finds themselves on the brink of winning the Stanley Cup (it will happen. I believe in Blue). I can’t see myself not getting crazy excited at our local junior team, the Vancouver Giants, takes another Memorial Cup Championship. If someone ever gets a jersey for me, I will likely cry.

Having said all that, these head shots have. Got. To. Stop.

Sidney Crosby - via his team - has announced this week that he will not be playing at the 2011 All-Star Game. Granted, all this game amounts to is a bunch of glad handing for the sponsors. It doesn’t add to the players’ stats, and a lot of players, in fact, really don’t like playing the All-Star games. Players have been known to get seriously injured, or penalized in regulation games for hits made at All-Star games. Nevertheless, with Sidney Crosby being largely considered the face of the NHL these days, it certainly has the all important (insert sarcasm here) sponsors wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth a bit.

Some players seem to have lost respect for the game, by making the hits that they do and frankly they are making things difficult for the fans. There are so many groups out there who cry foul every time any player takes any type of check, clean or otherwise and many fans spend almost as much time defending the sport to these groups as they do watching the sport itself. How can I defend hockey as a non-violent sport, when players are suffering severe concussions, broken limbs and in one case, losing an eye as a result of some of these hits? Heck, I enjoy watching some of these hits; when they’re clean, and when the checked player isn’t terribly injured. I’m not at all calling for the end of full-body contact. That is a major aspect of the game and it entertains the fans. Okay, so maybe hockey is violent, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad sport, or that the rules need to be completely rewritten. The newly formed Rule 48 though needs to be made stricter; hits to the head can’t be allowed (intentional or otherwise), and the league needs to bring down the hammer every time one occurs. There simply can’t be a “clean” hit to the head. To paraphrase Pens GM, Ray Shero: if you are going to penalize a player two minutes for clearing a puck out of his zone and it accidentally goes into the stands, you should at least dole out an equal punishment to a player who accidentally drops his shoulder and hits his check in the head. If that player does so intentionally, then said player should receive no less than a 1 to 2 game suspension and pay a fine. If the player is a repeat offender, then the league needs to come down harshly and swiftly on him.

Yes, when you put your skates to the ice, you have to be aware that there are many risks associated with doing so, but you shouldn’t have to worry about having someone rip your head off. Sidney Crosby is just 23 years old. He has, so far, missed 9 consecutive games because of a “mild” concussion. The next one he receives could likely end his story book career. And that would be the best case scenario, if hit.

No sport, no matter how violent and dangerous we all acknowledge, expect and accept it to be, should cause an athlete to risk his or her life. A hockey mom shouldn’t have to face similar fears as a mother of a police officer or soldier.

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