As Fans Turn Away From Hockey, NHL Ducks Head-Shot Reform

Warmup:

Taking fire from all sides for their lack of progress in preventing gratuitous violence in the National Hockey League, and stung by a recent mini-revolt among advertisers, fans and owners, league executives last week nonetheless did what officials often do when they don't really want to do much at all. They declared that they had formed a committee to study the matter.

The "matter" which they were supposed to be addressing is the NHL's increasingly unjustifiable refusal to aggressively police on-ice play to reduce the frequency of "head shot" hits that have left too many of its players with severe, life-altering injuries. The problem has been the subject of intense public debate all season as one star player after another has been dispatched to the hospital. In February, Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, one of the best and most famous players ever to put on a jersey, and now an owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, got so fed up with the NHL's lack of ardor in punishing transgressors that he publicly called out the league's "failure."

Things have only gotten measurably worse since then. The hit that broke the camel's back for me broke the neck of Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty in a game earlier this month against the Boston Bruins. Zdeno Chara, a hulking Bruins defensemen, rammed Pacioretty's head into a stanchion on the sideboards with terrible (and unnecessary) force. Pacioretty was knocked unconscious and suffered a severe concussion and broken (but non-displaced) fracture of one of his vertebrae. Chara was immediately kicked out of the game but was not subsequently suspended or fined for his conduct. NHL officials later described it as a "hockey play" and said they didn't want to alter the fast-paced, edgy nature of hockey.

An outcry ensued. Major sponsors like Air Canada and Via Rail (both Quebec-based, it's worth noting) threatened to pull their sponsorship of the NHL if the league didn't do more to protect against such recklessness. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman bluntly responded by telling Air Canada, in not so many words, that it needed the NHL more than the NHL needed it. Montreal police opened an investigation into the Chara hit. Politicians of all stripes weighed in-- as did millions of hockey fans around the world. I wrote about the Chara hit, and the furious reaction to it, earlier this month here at TheAtlantic.com. Here's what has happened since.

First Period:

The NHL doesn't call it a "committee," of course; that would be too much of an explicit admission of its failure to act boldly and decisively following the Chara hit. Instead, concerned hockey fans (and advertisers) now have before them what's being called a "blue-ribbon" panel composed of four former NHL stars. The men will now meet to discuss "player-safety" issues before reporting their conclusions to a larger group. Get the idea? At this rate, the Toronto Maple Leafs might win another Stanley Cup before effective rules reform comes to the NHL.

The panel was one of five half-hearted new measures offered last Monday by league officials to address the problem of head shots. The NHL also announced a more aggressive protocol for dealing with suspected concussions. It said said it would look more closely at equipment and existing rink safety (the Canadiens reinforced the padding on the stanchion at the Bell Center that Pacioretty hit). And the NHL pledged to consider making punishments more significant for "repeat offenders." What do all of these "reforms" have in common? None directly eliminate the problem they are purportedly designed to fix. Better diagnoses rules for concussions are great. But they don't do anything to prevent the concussion in the first place, right?

That was on Monday. Last Tuesday, the NHL's general managers, the guys who run the teams, outright rejected the chance to outlaw head shots from the league. Even though such a ban is the most obvious place to start in cleaning up the game, these hockey insiders weren't interested. "It would take a lot of hitting out of the game, a lot of the physical part of the game that makes our game so appealing," Ottawa GM Bryan Murray told the Washington Post, perhaps unaware of the irony of his words. The coach of the Washington Capitals, meanwhile, was even more flip in blowing off fans' concerns. "If you don't like it, don't come to the games," Bruce Boudreau said.

Second Period:

The joke may be on Boudreau and his fellow ostriches. A national poll last week in Canada revealed that no fewer than 80 percent of Canadians want head-shots banned from the league. The same poll indicated that 25 percent of NHL fans say they will watch less hockey on television because of the league's failure to better protect against thuggery. Even if half of those respondents were lying to their pollster, it's a big number for a league already suffering from poor attendance and small U.S. television ratings. The NHL (and Bettman in particular) simply cannot afford to lose Canada's confidence in the stewardship of its beloved national sport. 

In the real world of business, the customer is always right. In the NHL, the customer just doesn't understand. In the real world, an industry might go overboard to please its clients when faced with such a tangible threat to its popularity. In the NHL, the documented wishes of devoted fans are discounted by league executives who believe they know better and who say they want to preserve what they consider to be the purity of the sport. At this rate, the NHL may end up being the purest professional leagues ever to be marginalized or put out of business altogether by unsatisfied customers.

Backing down a bit from its threat, Air Canada said the NHL's response last week was a "step in the right direction." Other observers weren't so sure. One thing is certain. The NHL will not be able to adequately respond to this problem if the only people looking at solutions are hockey insiders and others with a vested interest in keeping the rules as they are. In other words, the same executives and officials (and owners and general managers and analysts) who have steered the NHL into this corner are the people who now are saying "let's make sure we don't turn around too quickly." That's just not good enough--and precisely why the NHL's poll numbers are so bad.

Third Period

Here's just one example of the disconnect between the league's rationale about head shots and what fans perceive as over the line. The NHL defended its five-point plan last week in part by citing the following concussion statistics. From the league's official website, NHL.com:

...[A]ccording to data compiled and studied by the NHL's Hockey Operations department and delivered to the general managers, there is not empirical data to back up any suggestion that concussions and resulting lost man-games are on the rise due to illegal hits to the head.

In fact, the majority of the concussions in the 2010-11 season to date have come from legal hits or accidental contact. Forty-four percent of the concussions this season have been the result of legal hits to the head or body, while another 26 percent have come when players were struck accidentally, either colliding with another player, being struck by the puck or tripping or falling and making head contact with the ice surface or the boards.

Another 17 percent of the concussions were the result of either illegal hits to the head or illegal body checks. Also, eight percent of the concussions were caused by fighting. Five percent of the concussions were not defined because video of the incidents does not exist.

Of course, statistics can say many contradictory things at once. The NHL says these stats support its tepid response to the Chara hit. The league accomplishes this sleight-of-hand by adding the percentage number of accidents that have caused concussions (26 percent) with the percentage number of legal hits that have done so (44 percent) and concluding that illegal hits cause only a small portion of the injuries fans want removed from the game. Therefore, the NHL argues, banning head shots won't effectively solve the problem and isn't otherwise worth the risk of changing the aggression that marks the game.

But here's another way to look at those same numbers. Fully 61 percent of concussions this year in the NHL have been caused by the combination of illegal hits (17 percent) and legal ones (44 percent). That tells me (among other things) that the NHL is categorizing as "legal"  overtly dangerous hits that should instead be considered "illegal." By thus defining "illegal hits" so narrowly, the NHL gets to throw up its hands and say that unpunished head-shots are an anomaly. Bettman essentially confirmed this tautology when he called Chara's hit against Pacioretty unfortunate but part of the game. It is "a part of the game" that will result in an on-ice death if something isn't done soon.

Fans accept that accidents will always happen in sports; there will always be concussions and other serious injuries as part of the nature of the game. But they are saying in increasing numbers and with growing clarity that they will no longer tolerate a league that refuses to do all it can to avoid those concussions which are avoidable. Blithely calling a near-deadly hit a "legal' one doesn't make the problem go away. The NHL cannot be afraid of what the needed rule changes might do to "traditional" hockey play. That's like refusing to put out a house fire with a hose because you are worried about water damage to the structure. 

Overtime:

The response to my initial post about the NHL and the Chara hit was intense and focused. The commenters who disagreed with me essentially offered three main points. First, they howled and called me a homer because I am a fan of the Canadiens who picked a hit against a Canadien to complaint about. It's true. I picked the Pacioretty hit because it impacted me the most-- just as the ruinous hit on superstar Sidney Crosby earlier this year (he's still not playing as a result of it) might have inspired a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins to call out the league. It's not about one team or one player. It's about fans saying "enough is enough" with an officially-sanctioned culture that tolerates such dirty play 

Next, critics said that Chara's hit on Pacioretty was nothing out of the ordinary, and certainly not the worst thing they'd ever seen in hockey, and thus didn't support my conclusion that it was a tipping point in perceptions about the league's failure or refusal to better police itself. Folks can reach their own conclusions about the hit. My point was that if this hit really was just like the rest, and nothing special, then hockey must change. And, no, it is not relevant to this discussion that Pacioretty is better and may, in fact, be back playing for the Canadiens by the time the playoffs come around in April. His good luck is no cover for league inaction.

Finally, commenting critics (like the National Hockey League Players Association) blamed conditions at the Canadiens' home rink--specifically, the stanchion which Pacioretty hit--as the cause of the problem. Don Cherry, the bombastic analyst for Hockey Night in Canada, showed a clip of other players being driven into stanchions in one way or another. His point was that Chara's hit on Pacioretty was a hockey play and that it was the Canadiens' fault for not better protecting their players. Sure, rinks should be as safe as they could be. But that still doesn't excuse Chara for needlessly directing Pacioretty's head into it.

Update: To its credit, the NHL did take stern action Monday in the case of Matt Cooke, a forward for Lemieux's Pittsburgh Penguins. Cooke, a repeat offender, delivered a vicious and illegal elbow to the head of New York Rangers rookie defenseman Ryan McDonough (a former first-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens, incidentally) in a game on Sunday afternoon. By dusk on Monday, the League had suspended Cooke for the remainder of the season (nine games) and the first round of the playoffs in April.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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