Concussions: paying the price for hitting in hockey

So, at least three NHL teams are missing their top scorers.

So, at least three NHL teams are missing their top scorers and sundry other NHL level but less well-regarded players are also on the shelf with – concussion symptoms.

The Smoke Eaters, too, have a player on the long-term sidelined list with a head problem.

Can anything be done about it?

Of course, but concrete solutions might change hockey into something long term fans would barely recognize, and the trend among organizers at all levels is going in the other direction, anyway.

The size, strength and speed of NHL players has increased dramatically in the last few decades. Equipment is harder and more dangerous at all levels.

Virtually nothing can be done about those factors, the most important ingredients in the concussion mix we have before us.

Nobody would suggest players should stop working out and no player will want to give up the superior protection the new equipment provides for the hitter in contact situations.

Besides, manufacturers of said equipment would use every means possible to avoid the major re-tooling required to produce less dangerous body wear.

We have already seen that with the issue of aluminum bats being used by adult amateur (NCAA and Legion/high school) baseball players. Manufacturers of those tools have sued -and mostly won – whenever anyone suggests getting rid of them in the interest of player safety.

With hockey, the larger, faster, stronger players have fewer puck-handling skills than NHLers in days of yore, but make up for some of that lack with positioning and physicality.

The NHL, in its wisdom, doesn’t really mind the crashing and banging, even within the crease, because the goals – seen as a, “the more the merrier and more entertaining,” input into selling the game – have to come from somewhere.

All this means is that the NHL situation – the best player of his generation and at least a couple of other rising stars out for however long, maybe forever soon – is unlikely to be remedied soon.

It seems possible, however unlikely at present, for minor hockey leagues at least, to remediate things for non-adult players.

All the evidence suggests sanctioned bodychecking for younger players is a recipe for disaster for some of those players.

The historical evidence also suggests taking severe hits out of the mix for younger players won’t stunt their hockey growth or damage their development into potential pros.

Lets take Trail Minor Hockey for an example. During the two decades after the Second World War, the acknowledged best minor hockey system in the province did not allow bodychecking at any level below junior.

That didn’t prevent Trail teams – bantam, midget and juvenile (nobody saw the point of peewee and peewee pool provincial championships, and I still don’t) – from being pretty dominant across the board.

It apparently didn’t do much damage to those players who moved on to bodychecking-allowed junior hockey either. Local teams won that B.C. title almost every year.

Despite that, and the fact almost every sports medicine field thinks hitting is a bad idea for young players, hockey groups continue to demand hitting remain a factor in “their” game.

Many rep coaches don’t bother teaching puck skills, preferring the easier route of, “systems,” and demonstrating their prowess at “taking the other guy out.”

This in spite of the fact that the increased danger in the game, along with the high costs of modern equipment, are driving down hockey participation by our youth across the country.

If it needs a grassroots movement to make hockey safer, it isn’t likely to happen soon.

If it requires the NHL to sort things out, it isn’t likely to happen period.

So we probably should get used to the idea that the most skilled, and therefore entertaining players in the game, are bound to have very short careers.

Just like in football.