March 7, 2010 is a very harrowing date in recent Bruins history. It’s also a black eye on the NHL, a date and an incident the league undoubtedly wishes it could do-over. On that Sunday, late in the league’s regular season, the Bruins and Penguins met in one of the final regular season games ever played at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.
That was the day Matt Cooke leveled Marc Savard with an unforgivable, indefensible blindside elbow, a hit that unofficially ended Savard’s career.
It’s been over four years since that incident took place, and the NHL still has a ways to go when it comes to making its product safer. Which begs the question: What’s taking so long?
It’s no secret that the NHL would like to cut down on the number of concussions that occur every season. And there’s no reason to sugarcoat it: a concussion is a brain injury, the wording of which is enough to strike fear in league executives when talks of trends or patterns are brought up. We know more about concussions now than we ever have, and protocols have been made stricter and more meticulous when identifying and treating said episodes. It’s definitely a factor when analyzing year-to-year totals.
In 2011-12 there were 78 reported concussions, while last season (the next full 82 game scheduled played) that number decreased to 53. Take those numbers at face value, and it’s easy to accept Gary Bettman parading that this is a problem is being corrected.
But that’s simply not the case.
A season after Savard suffered that devastating, excruciating-to-watch head shot, the NHL implemented a rule designed toward eradicating said incidents, hoping to decrease the number of concussions.
But a study released last July revealed the rule change wasn’t actually cutting down on the number of concussions over the first three seasons it was in place. Then, after the 48-game lockout shortened season, the reported number of concussions plummeted by 32 percent.
There are caveats to this decrease, of course.
Take for example James Wisniewski, the Columbus defenseman who hid his concussion during last year’s postseason to continue to play against Pittsburgh. Or when the Canadiens inexplicably allowed Dale Weise return after a play in which he had clearly suffered a concussion. (Montreal GM Marc Bergevin would later confirm after the team was eliminated Weise had in fact suffered a concussion.)
But it’s not only that these instances of circumventing concussion policy skew the numbers and don’t tell the whole story. There’s something deeper at play here.
A rundown of last year’s list of NHL suspensions, of which there were a combined 47 handed out to players, 15 of the offenses were categorized as an “illegal check to the head.” Those penalties drew a combined 56 suspended games.
But a quick double-check of the entire list reveals other transgressions that put an opposing player’s head in jeopardy. Like Brandon Prust’s assault on Derek Stepan, which broke his jaw, which was later labeled interference. Or Brent Seabrook’s decapitation of David Backes, labeled a charge. In total, 21 other incidents that drew a suspension that were not labeled “illegal checks to the head” categorically put someone’s head in a dangerous position. Those suspensions outnumber the total the league classified as head hits. But what’s scarier is that add the two numbers together, and 36, or just under 77% of suspensions last season, were plays in which a players head was put at risk.
Maybe you’re beginning to see what the real problem is here.
For the NHL to truly uproot this problem, and make significant strides toward making the game safer, it requires changing the culture league wide, and eliminating these situations before they can ever occur.
Hockey is inherently a dangerous sport, and there’s an old boy’s club that will tell a different story when it comes to the NHL’s concussion epidemic. One that will bellow that fighting is good for and polices the sport. But we know for sure that dropping the gloves does nothing to deter the game's goons. If a player makes it his goal to muck up the ice, and endanger his colleagues, he’ll do so regardless of how many equally dumb players are around to engage in fisticuffs.
But here’s the reality: Anything the NHL can do to make the game safer unequivocally makes the game better. If harsher penalties are needed to deter players from these hits to the head, than so be it. If a match penalty and a five-minute major aren't punitive enough in the moment, force teams to play with four skaters the rest of the way. The message as told through the current punishment is clearly falling on deaf ears. Even if all 36 of those aforementioned incidents didn't directly lead to a concussion, they very well could have.
Whatever fighting adds to the game, which when approached logically amounts to nothing, is nowhere close to justifying keeping it around. Don Sanderson of the Ontario Hockey League infamously died in 2009 after his head hit the ice at the tail end of a fight. It shouldn't take an incident as tragic for the NHL to throw in the towel on fighting.
There’s nothing the league can do to completely eliminate concussions. With 200-plus pound world-class athletes flying around the ice on skates, incidents are bound to take place. More punitive measures seem like a good start to incite change. Perhaps the NHL could experiment with the bear hug concept, in which players are legally allowed to wrap up an opponent with their arms when skating into the boards. That eliminates dangerous collisions that lead to boarding penalties, and vulnerable moments.
At other levels, the concept of a Look-Up Line is being tested. Coined as hockey’s warning track, the Look-Up Line is painted along the boards in a concentric pattern. When players approach the glass, it alerts them to where they are on the ice, a collision-saving cue for skaters with their heads down.
Then there’s the simple fact that hockey’s miscreants may need to be excommunicated from the league to weed out the problem players. Cooke has, and continues to be, a cancer in the league. The 35-year-old received his seventh career suspension last season after kneeing the Avalanche’s Tyson Barrie during the playoffs. And there were plenty of other repeat-offenders on last season’s suspension list. John Scott, Zac Rinaldo, and Zack Kassian were a few others who were banned last season, and not for the first time in their respective careers. And add up the illustrious accomplishments of that small group of four players (Cooke, Scott, Rinaldo, and Kassian), and you get 1,547 combined NHL games played, and 197 goals scored.
So what exactly are these players being deployed to do?
If Cooke’s next suspension was his last, and he was handed a pink slip for his rap sheet, the Minnesota Wild wouldn’t suffer much from a competitive standpoint. The same can be said about a number of other players and teams in the league, whether it’s Raffi Torres, Patrick Kaleta, or Colton Orr, players whose contributions are measured by how many times they didn’t leave their team shorthanded for a boneheaded penalty.
The players are what drive money into the league, and make its owners pockets so deep. Without the players, there would be no television rights, no jersey sales, and no ticket demand. So it’s overdue the league create a safer working environment for its employees, and ensure the longevity of their careers as best as possible.