Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Really, it's only common sense

The game of hockey that you - that we - have loved for so long is gone.
The days of trains colliding at a blue-line during a junior or professional game are over. No more will one player be permitted to prey on a defenceless and vulnerable opponent. No, it doesn't matter if the victim has his head down as he searches for a puck in his feet.
Those days are done. Kaput!
In the NHL, they don't want defenceman Eric Gryba of the Ottawa Senators drilling Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller as he looks back for a pass. Yes, it was a major-league collision. Yes, it was like a car wreck and we just couldn't look away. But the NHL has lost too many good players to career-ending brain injuries and it wants badly to slow down that train.
Meanwhile, the days of bodychecking for hockey players below bantam are soon to end, too.
The people who run hockey, the ones who make the rules, have come to the realization that things have to change. Declining registration numbers and an increasing number of injuries, mostly brain injuries, have dictated that the status quo no longer is an option.
This is all about player safety, and nothing else.
There simply are too many players suffering brain injuries and the more we learn about brain injuries, the more we come to the realization that they aren't like knee injuries. A surgeon and his scalpel can repair a knee injury; brain injuries are forever.
Hockey Alberta announced Wednesday that it is removing all bodychecking from peewee hockey effective with the 2013-14 season. Hockey Nova Scotia followed suit over the weekend. In fact, Hockey Nova Scotia went even further as it banned bodychecking at the bantam B and C and midget B and C levels.
The Greater Toronto Hockey League, with 30,000 players the largest hockey league in the world, is likely to implement a ban in peewee. Hockey BC may well reach the same conclusion during its annual meeting in Sun Peaks next month.
It likely won't be long before Hockey Canada implements a country-wide prohibition on bodychecking in all peewee levels and below.
Really, when you take emotion out of the equation, this is the only decision that can be made.
For too long, minor hockey has been coached and played as though its sole purpose is to develop professional players. In truth, the percentage of minor hockey players who go on to play professionally is minute and the percentage who reach the NHL is miniscule.
Minor hockey, then, should be for everyone.
But some children, it turns out, are fearful of being injured, and for good reason. Various studies carried out by people in and around the medical community have revealed that children under the age of 15 who play where bodychecking is allowed are three times more susceptible to brain injuries than those who don't.
It is numbers like these that are causing young players to leave the game. Yes, there always will be brain injuries in sports, no matter whether it's soccer, hockey, basketball, football, whatever. But steps must be taken in hockey to reduce their frequency.
It also is hoped that the move to prohibit bodychecking will keep at least some of those young people in the game, thus allowing the registration numbers to stabilize or maybe even increase.
As well, this move should mean coaches will spend more time teaching the basics of the game - skating, passing, shooting, puckhandling. You need only watch a few minutes of a junior hockey practice, especially early in a season, to realize that the Canadian game could use some help in that department.
Meanwhile, the elephant in the room is litigation.
As Stephen Hume of the Vancouver Sun noted earlier this month:
"A nightmare awaits Canadian minor hockey if officials, volunteers and organizations don't deal effectively with bodychecking and head injuries.
"In the United States there's a growing propensity among sports head-injury victims to launch and win huge liability cases that compensate them for brain trauma suffered while playing."
Let's not forget, too, that more than 4,000 former players are suing the NFL, claiming negligence in regards to concussions.
As that situation proceeds, you can bet that organizers and managers in all areas of the North American sporting world will be paying close attention.
All of this also is going to lead to the end of fighting in hockey.
Sooner or later, the people who run major junior and professional hockey are going to come to the realization that you can't move to stop open-ice, predatorial hits and take headshots out of the game, while you are condoning fighting.
Ridding the game of fighting, like removing bodychecking from some divisions of minor hockey, isn't a matter of doing what's right or what's wrong.
Rather, it's a matter of common sense.

(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca, gdrinnan.blogspot.ca and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)

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