DURING THE NHL LOCKOUT those of us cursed with both an unhealthy affection for the league and just enough self-loathing to stay informed on a daily basis, found ourselves inundated with union rhetoric. The players were united. They were a brotherhood. After late night CBA negotiations with the evil owners, they would retire to Brad Richards’ Manhattan apartment where Ron Hainsey would pull out his acoustic guitar and sing Pete Seeger songs. They were in this battle together, and nothing could come between the players and their union.
But a CBA was signed, or at least a memorandum of understanding, and the season began. Forgotten were the 113 hockey-less days, the nearly lost season, and a fraternity bonded by a hatred for all things Bettman. The players laced up their skates and returned to the ice and now, halfway into an abridged season, it’s like the lockout never happened. The fans are back, the revenues are up, Don Cherry is an idiot, and the players have returned to their pre-lockout ways, a union hell-bent on self-destruction. It’s not a self-destruction born of drugs—thought that remains an issue—but rather a literal destruction. The players have turned suicidal, and the deaths off the ice that wounded the sport in 2011 will pale in comparison to a death on the ice, which looks as if it’s not far away.
No one tells me how much to drink or how many relationships to destroy on my quest for literary infamy, so perhaps it is presumptuous to argue that the NHLPA needs to mandate behaviour on the ice within its membership. But two incidents in the past week shine a bright interrogative light on the flawed nature of the PA’s lack of self-awareness. First, New York Rangers defenceman Marc Staal took a puck to the face in his team’s 4-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. Staal doesn’t not wear a visor. Staal is an idiot, whose hubris could very well cost him not just his career, but his eyesight.
But Staal’s idiocy is not unique to the NHL and the PA. Though approximately 75% of the players wear a visor, that leaves a lot of men on the ice risking their well-being. Visors are mandatory in junior and college hockey, and Staal is young enough to have had to wear one while playing for the Sudbury Wolves in the OHL. And yet, because the league and the PA are dangerously behind-the-times in their old school thinking, Staal was allowed to remove the visor once he arrived in the NHL, which was dangerous because a) he hadn’t been taught to protect himself in lower ranks because he was wearing a visor, and b) HE WASN’T WEARING A GODDAMN VISOR.
The game moves fast, the equipment is state-of-the-art, and the players are careless. That’s a cocktail recipe for disaster. In recent memory we’ve seen Chris Pronger, Bryan Berard, Manny Malhotra, Al MacInnis, and others have their careers ended or irrevocably changed because of eye injuries. And if the players won’t choose to put the visors on, then the league and PA need to mandate their use. Not a player in the league plays without a protective cup (though Brad Marchand could, without any threat to his well-being), and yet the fear of blindness and a career cut short doesn’t scare the players enough to make a rational decision. Boys, you can play without balls (again, ask Marchand) but you can’t play without your eyes.
Far be it from the PA to have their lunacy restricted to one flaw. Again, last week, we saw yet another staged fight, a useless display of barbarism distracting the game from its essence. Toronto’s Frazer McLaren challenged Ottawa’s David Dziurzynski to scrap just 26 seconds into a Sens-Leafs tilt, and Dziurzynski—a rookie with a lot to prove in a league that too often ask you to prove the inane, to atone for its father’s fatuity—accepted McLaren’s offer after first refusing. McLaren knocked him out with a vicious punch, leaving the Sens’ forward concussed and unconscious on the ice. It was a frightening, and ultimately sad, example of how the league’s stubborn refusal to outlaw staged fights will no doubt one day lead to something much worse than a concussion, or a shortened career. A fight-related death is inevitable, and if the NHL won’t address it then the PA needs to do a better job of managing and maturing its membership, explaining that you can’t continue your career if you’re dead, or blind, or permanently concussed.
Fighting isn’t allowed in hockey, contrary to popular stupidity. It’s a penalty, just as are slashing, boarding, and stabbing a guy with your skate. I’m not naïve enough to believe that fighting will be removed from the NHL, it is also an inevitability given the physical nature of the sport. I’ve cheered a hockey fight, but I appreciate a player who has the skills to play the game and fight, not fight and endure the game. But these thoughtless exercises in pugilism not only detract from the sport’s more admirable and exciting qualities, but in providing roster spots to thugs instead of skilled players the NHL dilutes the game’s talent, and restricts its growth.
Hockey players have lost the ability or willingness to police themselves. Just as PA head Don Fehr presided over Major League Baseball’s performance enhancing drug era which tainted and altered the game irreparably, he is now leading a union that is its own worst enemy, and its drug of choice is not HGH or stanozolol, but rather hubris, petulance, and ignorance. Staged fights and dangerous lack of equipment will ultimately lead to something worse than the quiet room, the IR, or the AHL. NHL players are incapable of understanding the nature and danger of their ignorance, and those charged with overseeing their welfare—not just financial—need to step in and make these important decisions for them.