This week, the NHL’s General Managers met to discuss rule changes to bring down the growing number of head injuries suffered by players. While the topic arises now and again, this time it reached fever pitch when, among other things, Boston Bruin Zdeno Chara’s hit on Montreal’s Max Pacioretty, which left Pacioretty with a broken neck, prompted NHL sponsor Air Canada to threaten to end its relationship with the league.
The GM meeting resulted in a five-point plan for reducing and treating potential concussions. GMs agreed to encourage more stringent enforcement of charging and boarding penalties, as well as harsher punishments for dangerous, illegal hits.
They opted not to make head shots illegal. One of the major priorities GMs had was keeping hockey as intense and fast paced a sport as ever, and I think a desire to keep the game exciting contributed to their decision to avoid the most drastic, though most effective, measures for reducing head injuries.
Though the discussion of head injuries is hardly a new one in hockey, it’s even more charted territory in the NFL. I talked with my friend Eli, who used to interview players on behalf of the NFLPA and frequently asked their opinions on continually emerging research indicating the detrimental effects head injuries can have on long-term health. What Eli told me, in short, was this: Players love the game, and will in the end still love playing even if the rules are modified significantly. The greatest concern isn’t keeping players happy, it’s keeping fans happy.
So what does that boil down to? GMs aren’t worried about keeping hockey fast paced and intense for the sake of the players, they’re worried about it for the sake of keeping us fans around. The same way past rule changes have aimed to make hockey a higher-scoring game, rules today are influenced by the need to increase fan appeal.
There’s no denying hockey fans love the hits, love the fights, love the speed of the game. I’m not accusing anyone of cutting and running if those elements change, but I am asking you honestly: Would it change how you feel about hockey? Most of us share a sense of loathing towards players like Trevor Gillies, whom Ryan Cooper wrote about recently in one of several posts on the issues of head injuries and dangerous hits. But in less cut and dry cases, and if we’re talking about sweeping changes, rather than a case-by-case basis, are you willing to commit to protecting players?
If the answer is yes, I encourage you to make that opinion known. If you need proof that hockey will still be amazing, just look at Detroit, a team with the fewest penalty minutes in the league but some of the best hockey to watch. We fans are not the only thing that stands in the way of ending dangerous, injury-causing hits, but we are a factor, and introducing our opinions into the conversation is sure to make a difference as the NHL considers this issue.