Ken Dryden, the former Canadiens goaltender who has regularly advocated for a less dangerous game, once again is speaking out on hits to the head and suggesting the NHL take an even stronger stand to prevent concussions.
Writing in the online magazine Grantland, Dryden views Sidney Crosby’s problems with brain trauma as the defining theme of the upcoming season and declares,
“This is a difficult time for the NHL, for its commissioner, Gary Bettman, and for hockey. It’s no less difficult for the NFL, for its commissioner, Roger Goodell, for the NCAA, and for football. Head injuries have become an overwhelming fact of life in sports. The immensity of the number, the prominence of the names, the life-altering impact on their lives, and, more disturbing, if that’s possible, the now sheer routineness of their occurrence. The Crosby hit didn’t seem like much. If it hadn’t been Crosby, the clip of the incident would never have made the highlight reel. And if so much can happen out of so little, where is all this going? Who else? How many more? How bad might this get? Careers and lives of players, we know now, have been shortened, diminished, snuffed out by head injuries. What once had seemed debatable, deniable, spin-able, now is not. What once had been ignored now is obvious. Not just contact or collision sports, hockey and football are dangerous sports.
There is little doubt that the hits Crosby absorbed last January and the resulting publicity has a major impact on NHL ownership and management strengthening Rule 48 for this upcoming season (just as the Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty and the resulting outcry had a similar impact on strengthening Rule 41.1 on Boarding). But Dryden isn’t satisfied with piecemeal changes to the rules. He feels the dangers caused by hits to the head demand something more.
“For Bettman, it’s time to say: This is a great game, but it has a big problem, one that will only get worse if we don’t do what needs to be done now,” he writes. “Our players will not get smaller, they will not skate slower, the force of their collisions will not diminish. The equipment they wear will not improve fast enough to mitigate the greater risks they will face. ‘Tweaking’ is not the answer. Immediately, Bettman can say, we need to treat any hit to the head as what it is: an attempt to injure.”
The strenghened Rule 48, strangely, has removed the major penalty and game misconduct and allows referees to call a minor for targeting the head. They also can assess a match penalty for attempt to injure, as the referees did to Detroit’s Brendan Smith, who was suspended on Friday for this hit on Chicago’s Ben Smith, who The Chicago Sun-Times reports was concussed on the play.
Dryden is willing to make an exception for hits where the victim makes himself vulnerable, plus minor or incidental contact, but that’s it. As for a player who gets clocked because he’s looking down at the puck, Dryden believes the onus should be on the checker, a departure from the traditional view. He writes,
“In years past, the best way to move the puck forward was believed to be for a player to do it himself, stickhandling up the ice. Having his head down with his eyes focused on the puck was considered an advantage to him. It was only fair, then, that a defender have his own advantage and, unseen by the puck-carrier, be able to blast him. Now the best way to advance the puck is seen to be by passing, so a player with his head down is at a disadvantage already and doesn’t require further punishment. He can be easily stopped with no more than incidental contact. In such cases, a crushing hit to the head (e.g., Stevens on Lindros) is nothing less than an attempt to injure. The common explanations — ‘Because he deserved it’ or ‘Because I can’ — are not good enough in this age of concussions and dementia.”
He also believes fighting must be reconsidered because of the epidemic of concussions. It’s not the place of fighting in hockey that he wants discussed but its potential to cause head injury and brain trauma; that is what’s most relevant to the discussion now. “This is about the outrageous damage that hits to the head are doing to lives and to a sport,” he writes.
Dryden calls for sports to be “head smart,” for rules to change in all sports that make protection of the head a serious priority. He does not want the game to lose its big hits, become a game without risk, just for the game to be played smarter and safer with a more informed risk.
“How would we make hockey safer?” he asks. “What would need to change? How would this game feel different to play? To watch? What would be lost? Unable to do some of the things they did before, what would players do instead?
“My guess is that a lot less would change and for many fewer players than we think. My guess is also that many of the changes would make our games better, and not only for reasons of safety. If some rules are changed, players and coaches will find ways to adapt and to gain a competitive advantage, because that’s what players and coaches do. They’re dreamers and imaginers. They’re competitive. They need to win. Once, players and coaches came up with the forward pass in both hockey and football and gave flight to sports that had become a static snarl of bodies. They’ll do it again. The mediocre will dig in their heels — they fear they can’t change — and usually that’s enough to stop everything in its tracks. But this time we have no choice.”
You can read Dryden’s entire article here.