Yvon Labre whacked Mike Haworth on the head with his stick during the Capitals' intrasquad game this morning. Haworth responded with a two-hander on Labre's head and then they proceeded to punch each other. It is shuddering to imagine the result had their heads not been protected by helmets.
The National Hockey League and the NHL Players Association have seen enough shattered heads to institute a rule this season requiring anyone entering the league to wear a helmet.
Veteran players need not comply, but they must sign a waiver. Each game lineup will note those who have done so; nobody else can skate without one.
Of the 68 players in the Capitals' camp, only six appeared bareheaded during the President's Cup intrasquad tournament that concluded tonight. Several of that half dozen indicated they might switch before the start of the regular season.
One who would rather fight than switch, and often does, is defenseman Gord Lane, whose swashbuckling style of play frequently subjects him to retaliatory assaults.
"I haven't ever worn one before, so I don't think I should start now," Lane said. Then, fingering his curly black hair, he added, "I want everybody to recognize me."
While helmets are widely praised, and justifiably so, as a safety factor, Lane was noting an unfortunate aspect of their use. Fans no longer can identify with players on the ice, removing a great deal of the sport's former charm. Now hockey players resemble the armored warriors of the football field, distinguishable only by the numbers on their backs.
"I wear No. 25 and Guy (Charron) wears No. 15," Bob Strois said. "We look pretty much alike and I know it must be pretty hard to tell us apart."
Sirois does not intend to remove his helmet and Charron has good reason not to take his off. It was just a year ago that Charron wore one as an experiment and he was glad he did. In Buffalo, Charron slipped and his head hit the boards. He suffered a slight concussion and was knocked out, even with the helmet guarding his head.
"I was unconscious and I had trouble swallowing," Charron said. "Anytime you're unconscious and have to be carried off on a stretcher, it's bad. But I recovered well and I had no lapse of memory and I was able to play the next day. Maybe if I didn't have that helmet, it would have been worse."
Charron wore a helmet as an NHL rookie in 1970, but abandoned it after an opponent pushed it over his face. At that time, helmets were bulky and restrictive. Recent improvements have made them more comfortable.
"This kind of helmet is light, but it will absorb a high stick or a clean hit on the boards, like Buffalo," Charron said. "You see most of the guys wearing them now and maybe they're trying to tell us all something."
Nobody will tell Bob Girard to wear one, though. Girard is battling to keep his left-wing spot against some talented newcomers and he will not consider possible hindrances.
"I tride them in training camp last year and two years ago," Girard said. "It's pretty hard for me.I get really hot. I've got enough problems right now without that."
"I haven't found one that's comfortable and I don't think training camp is the place to experiment," echoed another left wing, Paul Mulvey. "I have to make the club and I want to be confident if I make it and most of the guys are wearing them, then I think I'll probably turn to one, too."
"I never liked them," defenseman Pete Scamurra said. "They're bothersome, they're extra weight and they affect my hearing."
"I tried one in junior and then they were heavier and loose on your head," said another abstainer, Pierre Bouchard. "Sometimes the helmet would come across your face; Now they are lighter and cover more space. Maybe I'll start later on. It wouldn't be a bad thing to start. I think everybody needs a little scare to start wearing one."
Defenseman Bob Bilodeau has played with head bared, although he wore a helmet last season at Hershey.
"When the games start, I'll have it on again. It's a good idea. You only have one of these," said Bilodeau, tapping his head. "I just don't like to have it on in camp."
Heads have been vulnerable in camp, too, as Labre and Haworth learned along with others. One of the President's Cup finalists, the Governors squad, has been labeled the "assassins" by the competition for rather ungentlemanly conduct on the ice.
Among the Governors are Gary Rissling, who accumulated 464 penalty minutes with Washington and Hershey a year ago; Tim Coulis, whose three year junior career included 679 penalty minutes and frequent suspensions, and plane, who mellowed to 195 minutes a year ago after five straight 200-plus campaigns.
The worthy opposition includes Mark Toffolo, a 557-minute man in the International league last season; Jay Johnston, who served 409 in the same league; Archie Henderson, whose figures declined from 419 to 337 with concentration on hockey, and Labre, the Capitals' all-time penalty leader with 618.
Lane shattered 11 sticks Wednesday, not all in pursuit of a puck. He found himself in a stick-swinging duel with Henderson and was attacked by Brent Tremblay today after administering what Tremblay loudly termed a "cheap shot."
Dennis Hextall's stick removed Johnston's helmet and also landed with some velocity on Rick Bragnalo's shins. In each case a fight followed.
Coulis flattened Mark Lofthouse in a battle of sore-wristed swingers, Coulis recovering from an operation and Lofthouse nursing a bruise inflicted by Labre's stick. Coulis in turn was the victim of a devastating check by Jim Mctaggart that sent Coulis to temporary quarters in the dressing room.
Even goalies Jim Bedard and Rollie Boutin have used their sticks as spears, lending their part to what should probably become the training camp motto: "If you can't use your head, cover it."