Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where we still hope someday that the NFL will implement college-style overtime rules…or at least extend the playoff-only changes to all games.
If you haven’t heard the sad story of Jack Jablonski, click here. In short, a promising high school hockey player and athlete from the Minneapolis area was paralyzed when he was checked from behind (he was defenseless) into the boards during a recent game. It wasn’t a dirty or goonish play like you sometimes see for all the wrong reasons on SportsCenter, but it happened nonetheless. And ever since, the debate over how physical the game of hockey should be – especially for younger kids – has raged here in the State of Hockey. It’s the most passionate I’ve ever seen people on the topic of violence in hockey, and that’s saying something…entire NHL teams, elite athletes from several sports, Taylor Swift and others have checked in on Jablonski and added fuel to the fire.
Already, in mid-season, the Minnesota State High School League and other youth hockey governing bodies here have voted to immediately implement strict rules on checking from behind in an effort to eliminate these kinds of injuries. Any check from behind (and sometimes from the side) is an automatic 5-minute major penalty now, and could be grounds for ejection and/or suspension. This zero-tolerance approach is meant to teach kids from their earliest years on the ice a cleaner, healthier way of playing the game. It’s going to take a generation perhaps for the changes to truly take hold, but I think most anyone who hasn’t been hit too many times in the head sees the moves as a big step in the right direction.
This, of course, follows a disastrous summer for the sport in which several former NHL players, including Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard, died of brain and other medical issues. Boogaard, according to an excellent three-part series from the New York Times, had a brain as damaged by head trauma as any athlete that brain experts have ever seen. The effects of that kind of damage, even if the athletes live, spell doom for their chances of leading a high-quality life in their middle to late years. Should the league step in and help out? Should players be compensated for their pain and battlescars, or get help paying their bills? It’s the same kind of thing we saw NFL players go to war over in their labor battles with owners last summer.
Youth hockey organizations in Minnesota, to their credit, are acting now to make the game safer. The NHL, on the other hand, hasn’t done anything outside of somewhat harsher punishments for dirty play. Now the league finds itself at a critical fork in the road, each with its own pros and cons. It can maintain the status quo, or it can choose to really get tough. Let’s face it – fighting, hitting and physical play help sell the league to casual fans. It helps the league drive up TV revenues. It helps keep teams without as much talent competitive and in the hunt for the playoffs. But, as documented, it takes a heavy human toll. Besides the three dead former players, take Sidney Crosby…the best player in the league, coming off a brilliant 2010 Olympics, has spent most of the last two seasons on the shelf with a concussion. How can the league continue to grow and market itself when its best stars aren’t on the ice – or at risk of leaving the ice for good with every passing shift? And does the league really want all the negative attention and PR it’s bound to get the more that injuries and deaths come to light? With the bigger/faster/stronger trend of athletes today, it’s just a matter of time.
It’s not for me to decide of course, but the NHL has to take a hard look at this and decide what it wants its future to be and what role should it play with injuries like this. We can all appreciate tough, intense, physical play, and hockey is by nature a very rough sport. But anything that can be done to help kids and adults lead healthier lives should be done, and the decisions should be made by weighing all the factors (and not just revenues) equally. It is just a game, after all.
That’s all for now. I’m out like off-days in the NBA.