Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Game Continues to be Strangled

The Game, that's how we know it in Canada. It's what Ken Dryden called his tome of brilliant hockey insight when it was published many years ago. It's what over half a million kids play in registered leagues each year according to Hockey Canada.

However The Game will lose some potentially very bright members again. Max Pacioretty, blooming power forward for the Montreal Canadiens was a victim of a brutal, reckless hit by Boston's captain, Zdeno Chara. If you haven't seen it, it's not for the weak of heart but perhaps you should see it, so you might be educated on what is the most reckless hit I've seen on a player in a long time. I have honestly not been so disturbed by a Canadiens player's injury since Saku Koivu had a stick poked in his eye in the 2006 NHL playoffs.

I'm not going to get into the intent to injure talk except to say that's what I saw. The biggest, strongest man in the NHL in Zdeno Chara, 6'9", 261 pounds was behind this brutal play. A 33-year old Norris Trophy defencemen who to do his job on the ice, has to know where he is and what's around him and don't tell me at his age, Chara doesn't know how easily he can muscle people. I do not buy for one moment that he did not see the turnbuckle in his field of vision at any point and that he wasn't aware shoving Pacioretty's head right towards where the bench ended was dangerous. Someone of his experience and his strength knows exactly how hard those turnbuckles can be and knows that shoving someone with his strength right into a hard object is a blatantly dangerous play. His hands were firmly on Pacioretty as that hit was finished as well, that's intent.

But that's not what I'm here to really talk about. I'm trying to talk about The Game. If you've stopped by Habs and Hockey before, you know what the focus of my blogging is, I'm a futurist, I look at the Montreal Canadiens prospects and imagine what could be in a few years. I had the privilege of watching PK Subban and Max Pacioretty play for the Hamilton Bulldogs last season. It was easy to see in Subban what the potential was but I also kept an eye on Pacioretty when I saw him play. One game, I watched him, Ryan White and current Bulldog Aaron Palushaj have a dominant game together, they did not rule the score sheet but their line was physically dominant all game. I could tell those players had something to offer Montreal in a future role, they had everything the team needed in heart and soul effort to give them more physical impact. Ryan White proved that last night after a semi-legal hit on PK Subban that was close to being knee-on-knee and he quickly gave Johnny Boychuk a frank opinion on his choice in targets. I'm not a large fan of fighting in the game or vigilantism, but with the league paralyzed by indecision regarding what is a dirty hit, what choice do teams have but to deploy players to discourage the nasty behaviour?

Montreal Canadiens and their fans watched a 22-year old player with his whole hockey career in front of him get severely injured for no reason. Max Pacioretty's parents were in attendance, imagine the horror of that for a moment, if you even can. How many families will watch this incident, as they watched the David Booth and Marc Savard incidents and decided to pull their children out of hockey? This is my problem, the league is limp-wristed about punishing dangerous play, all while insisting The Game is in great shape, not aware or just uncaring of the fact that many great or potentially great players are seeing their careers ended or compromised by horrific injury. How can any self-respecting parent send their kid into an environment where this is seen at the junior level and kids see and or are told by coaches you have to 'play on the edge' to make it? A few weeks ago, the Montreal Canadiens 1st-round pick in the 2010 draft Jarred Tinordi dropped himself low to deliver a heavy check, which you can see here. He didn't have to drop low at all if he didn't want to, he could have taken the guy's head off with his size but he didn't. Didn't seem like a hard thing for a 19-year old kid who was still pretty new to being 6'7" to understand, don't attack the head. Why is it such a hard lesson to teach, do people really think brain injuries are not dangerous and life-changing?

Wait a minute you say, who said anything about brain injuries? I did, you see that's what a concussion actually is, it's your brain getting rocked around inside your skull and being damaged. It's not a bruised knee or a sprained ankle, or a broken wrist or a seperated shoulder. The brain can not be surgically repaired, a brace can not be applied to it and there's no drug you can take that minimizes the effect. It is your mind, it is who you are. I do not drink and I have never taken shall we say recreational pharmaceuticals because for me, I have a very clear identity of who I am. I am uncomfortable with altering my sense of identity and how I think. I imagine most of you are, but the problem is a brain injury can take that away from you. Hockey players have spent months in dark rooms with almost no noise to ease their post-concussion symptoms, hoping day after day that they will resolve finally and they can return to the game. This just doesn't extend to the pros either, this happens to junior hockey players as well. They suffer brain injuries that do not resolve and must quit the game before we even know what they are capable of becoming. They take these injuries with them as well, for the rest of their lives. I worked with someone who was extremely conscious of his own safety for the fact that he had suffered three severe concussions already. He had never been a hockey player but I imagine there are a few ex-junior players in a similar spot. These people are probably concerned about their safety playing simple recreational sports and will have to live with that fear for the next thirty, forty, fifty or sixty years.

I have discovered a deep love for The Game since I began to intently follow it over the last three years. However there is a fine line between love and hate and if there is anything that can make me hate it, it is what happened last night. It is this pollution of a complete lack of respect for the safety of other players. It is an environment where violent knee-on-knee collisions are considered less damning and less worthy of suspension than if a player makes a crude remark about another player dating his ex-girlfriend. It is this trickle-down effect where we see the dangerous hits carried out in junior hockey as these players try to get a scout's attention to prove they are 'on the edge'. It's an environment where a brain injury is still not well understood by the players and they are not properly educated on the dangers of them. Some do speak out, Keith Primeau, a player whose career was cut short by concussions admirably takes his time raising awareness of the dangerous injuries. Why must great players, potentially great players or even just the honest lunchpail-type players in any level of hockey have to see their livelihoods so blatantly put in jeopardy? Who gains from this lack of respect in the game?

I am a futurist, I see what a young player can do and like to imagine what he might accomplish over time. The problem for me is how should I believe that these players will really get a chance, knowing that someone bigger and stronger or just smaller and reckless will not put their career in jeopardy out of malice? Why should I promote the game, pump up a young prospect like the heart-and-soul scoring ace Brendan Gallagher knowing someone might just line him up in his first pro season and blow out his knee or give him a severe concussion to take him out of the game?

It's hard to be a fan at times, knowing that the NHL doesn't seem to care about player safety and the message is going down the junior hockey ranks letting the kids know that they'll have to show they don't mind being reckless if they want to make the show. Mario Lemieux was right to criticize the Islanders employing Trevor Gilles, a sociopath on skates but really Mario, clean up your own house while you're on your soap box. Matt Cooke should have lost his right to play in the NHL a long time ago. He should be persona non grata in the league and not able to find work if the NHL owners had a sense of interest in making sure their star players be protected. The cheap shot artists should be blacklisted in the NHL, not able to find work and the word should be passed down to the organization's farm teams that he is not to find work there either. If the NHL will not ban these players outright, they need to be squeezed out of the league. The players should refuse to skate with these maniacs and insist they will not play with them, knowing the second these players are traded that they'll be coming at their knees and heads just as hard.

Talent should be allowed to thrive, youth hockey should be supported and heart and soul players should be encouraged to play to their best but let us not confuse courage with malice or courage and recklessness. There is no reason a parent's heart should be in their throat wondering if their son is dead on the ice from an unnecessary hit. There is no reason Marc Savard's career should potentially be over. There is no reason the NHL can't clean up their sport. I've never played the game before, but I can honestly say right now I'm glad my parents never put me into it now knowing what might have happened to me, how today I might struggle to remember simple things because someone crashed my head into the boards trying to look tough.

The Game will likely lose some great talents due to injury and even more as parents wisely pull their children out of hockey knowing that nobody is looking out for their kids but them. It is a pity and why I feel exactly this, The Game is being strangled by those who do not see it for what it can be. It is the greatest sport the world has ever seen, but The Powers That Be do not seem to understand what makes it great.

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