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Hockey Is Taking a Hit

Players on stretchers. This is what it means to be a true Canadian?

Andy Prest 6 Dec

Andy Prest is a Vancouver journalist.

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Johan Franzen, decked by Willie Mitchell

Hockey is a tough game. At least that's what all Canadians are told from the time they see their first on-ice fight. But recently something else is appearing on ice with disturbing frequency: stretchers.

The NHL season is less than 10 weeks old and already several players have been knocked unconscious by hits to the head. The latest of the four big blows came from the shoulder of Vancouver Canucks defenceman Willie Mitchell and had the Detroit Red Wings cryptically vowing revenge. The topic is sure to be revisited -- certainly by the media and perhaps by the players -- when the teams finally meet again in Vancouver on March 17.

The spate of knockouts from "legal" bodychecks forced the league's general managers to add the problem to the agenda of their regularly scheduled meeting in late November. The result: no changes were made to the existing rules to deter players from hitting each other in the head with "clean" bodychecks.

This decision was not a surprise. Hockey violence is hard to give up -- particularly in Canada. Why? According to a couple of sports researchers, it's because for many Canadians, cutting back on violence in hockey is akin to handing the game over to foreigners and renouncing our own Canadian citizenship.

Taking the 'Canada' out of hockey?

Michael Robidoux and Pierre Trudel make this argument in Artificial Ice, a recently released collection of essays on hockey, culture and commerce. Robidoux and Trudel describe hockey's birth on Canada's frozen lakes and ponds as a time when this bond between toughness, hockey and Canada was created.

"The very excessiveness of the game of hockey was what made it distinctive and subsequently embraced by Canadian sports enthusiasts," Robidoux and Trudel argue. "It has not merely been the game but the physically aggressive and reckless manner in which it was played that connoted an ideal of the Canadian sportsman."

If Canada is hockey and hockey is Canada, then any attacks on the game or attempts to change its rules become attacks on Canada itself. And Canada is a nation that prides itself on beating back attacks (see 1812, War of). Here's where the refusal to protect players' heads comes in. Robidoux and Trudel write about the reluctance to remove bodychecking from minor hockey, but the arguments are the same for big-hitting professionals: "Removing bodychecking would be to put the Canadian game at risk; similarly, de-emphasizing toughness, aggression and physical intimidation would be to take the Canada out of hockey."

Monopoly on grit

Think of international hockey stereotypes. What's a Russian team? Fast, skilled, maybe a bit dirty. What's a Swedish team? Talented, maybe a bit soft. What's a Finnish team? Hard-working, maybe a bit small. And what's a Canadian team? Talented, strong, tough. We win because we have heart, we want it more. At least, that's how the myth goes.

In fact, player selections for the Canadian men's team at the 2006 Winter Olympics reflected this search for "heart." Players like Shane Doan and Todd Bertuzzi who could give Team Canada unquantifiable advantages in toughness and "grit" were chosen over young, talented Canadians like Sidney Crosby and Eric Staal that could give the team quantifiable advantages in areas such as goals and assists. But our "heart" didn't conquer the world -- a fact that begs the question: do Canadian players really "want it" more than, say, Swedish players? Do we really have a monopoly on guts and toughness?

So far this season, Canadian players do have a monopoly in one thing: doling out concussive bodychecks to the head. Canadians obviously are not the only big hitters in the game, but Raffi Torres, Robyn Regehr, Colby Armstrong and Willie Mitchell -- the four players responsible for this season's biggest knockout hits -- are all Canadian. All of the hits resulted in concussions and none of the players were penalized except for the two-minute penalty Mitchell received for interference.

Head shots

The league's general managers aren't the only ones discussing the hits to the head. The topic comes up every day on Canadian sports shows, in sports sections and on radio call-in shows. Ron MacLean, the host of Hockey Night in Canada and Don Cherry's increasingly vocal sidekick on "Coach's Corner," recently blamed the violent hits on the NHL's crackdown on obstruction and interference -- a position that has earned MacLean a lot of heat from sports commentators across the country. Even Cherry himself has told MacLean to "give it a rest."

Not surprisingly, almost all "hockey people," -- a sort of club made up of current and former professional players, coaches and managers -- argue that hard bodychecks are part of the game and if players don't want a concussion, they should keep their heads up on the ice. More surprising is the number of commentators, including a very prominent "hockey guy," who argue that the NHL needs to curb violent collisions that result in head injuries. The most outspoken is Bob McKenzie, a hockey analyst who appears on The Sports Network (TSN) and writes for their website. McKenzie has argued his point on-air several times and he usually prefaces his arguments with statements like "I know hockey people will call me a sissy, but..."

The one "hockey guy" calling for change is Bobby Orr, the best defenceman to ever play the game. "If you go to bodycheck a guy and you hit him in the face or head, and injure him, that's legal? That's fair? That's not a penalty? I'm sorry, I don't think that is right. It should be a penalty," Orr told TSN. Orr, who was a star for the Boston Bruins in the 1970s, says players didn't hit each other like that when he was playing. (Cherry has since brought out footage that might indicate otherwise.)

When clean hits go dirty

While Orr is a very qualified commentator, it is dangerous to romanticize a golden age when players had more respect for each other. Hockey has always been a violent game and perceptions today are influenced by new variables such as the recognition of concussions as serious health problems. In years past, commentators would laugh when a player "got his bell rung" and the player would often be back on the ice a few minutes later. Also, the abundance of sports channels and radio shows means that the game is scrutinized now more than ever. New equipment also makes a difference. Today shoulder pads are made of hard plastic and can knock a player out before he hits the ice.

So what is the solution? Although the NHL's commissioner is an American, the game is predominantly run by Canadians and perhaps it is time to revisit the concepts that Canada equals hockey and Canada equals tough. Maybe it is time bring in a new stereotype.

Doesn't Canada also equal peacekeeping (recent events excepted)? Peacekeeping isn't being sissy, it's simply protecting people and trying to do what is right. If hockey players are being knocked cold at a rate of about one every two weeks, it doesn't make them less tough if rules are changed to protect them -- it would hopefully just makes them less woozy.

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