Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Remember the Code? Ya, neither do I.

The Good ‘Ol Code…fact or fiction?
The lament of Bobby Hull, the greatest goal-scorer of his time, was the effect that head protection, namely the helmet, had on the game. Regarded as arguably the best left winger ever, Hull played in a helmet-free era from 1957 to 1980, a time in which he was quite likely the most prolific scorer. In that time Hull, also known as ‘the Golden Jet’, amassed 610 goals over fifteen seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, and another 303 with the Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers of the upstart World Hockey Association, where he starred alongside ‘Mr. Hockey’ Gordie Howe, his sons Mark and Marty, and a band of other professional hockey players who defiantly thumbed their noses at the NHL, and struck a victory for players everywhere taking big money contracts in the twilights of their careers to help grow the new rebel WHA.
Hull had always been outspoken, and not just as a pitch man for elyptical trainers, but in all facets of the game. He was one of the first to embody the idea of business of sport. The 303 goals he scored in the WHA very well could have left him the highest scorer of all time had they come in the NHL, but he sold-out and made a business, not a hockey decision and joined the Jets, not far removed from the forgotten days of the exploited professional athlete, who truly risked life and limb because of a passion for the game, and to unjustly line the pockets of franchise owners who did not share a fair cut of the pie with the men putting the product on the ice.
After his playing days Hull took another stand, and although his many negative comments about the use of helmets in hockey were generally perceived as a further proponent for their being made mandatory if willing to see past the neandrotholic skin of his argument his point was brutally true: added physical protection equals weakened mutual respect for physical wellbeing of fellow hockey players, and athletes in general.
The institution of the helmet more or less took the muzzle off the dog and players began to feel its full bight. Body contact, once perceived by the forefathers of the game as a disadvantage as it took a player out of his position was now a tactical high-grounds for dynasties built on pugilism. Open ice hits and the goon side-show became a selling point for the game as it expanded in to non-traditional hockey markets; to the great detriment of the sport, it was reduced to a novelty act. Unfortunately for the pro game the hits just kept on coming. In an effort to protect its stars the evolution of the game made them increasingly vulnerable to cataclysmic impacts. Changes at the grassroots level have had a similar effect but we are only now beginning to see them as a generation of young athletes are coming up playing a game that is nary a shadow of its former self.
Chronologically the first major change to the game is the inception of the helmet. The next change was facial protection. It is near impossible to argue against a breakthrough in physical protection of athletes in a contact sport without coming off as a club wielding cave dweller. Don Cherry isn’t the greatest spokesperson (unless you’re talking cold medicine or mortgages), but his campaign against the visor was perhaps the thing that made him most susceptible to the slings and arrows of his many critics. Cherry’s blame for the visor crossed a line; it was one thing to consider European and French Canadian players as soft, but another to associate them with the popularization of the evil visor. At the same time visor use became prominent minor hockey in this country mandated the full face shield. Now every child that played minor hockey was taught that unsafe use of your stick never resulted in physical harm. The bad habit of uncontrolled stick use without the regard for your opponent was not stymied at the developmental stage as it had been engrained in the past. If an errant stick struck a masked youth hockey player they might not even flinch, and without the head-whip result of a high-stick the penalty is rarely called, and the infraction cannot leave any physical harm.
Again at the grass-roots level what may cost more player’s careers than fights, rocket-launched slapshots from composite sticks engineered by NASA scientists or stray skate blades to the jugular: physical contact removed from the game at the developmental level. Hitting is part of the game. Taking it out of minor hockey was an attempt to protect developing young athletes from the harms of physical contact, until they start to play the game the way its meant to be. There is no transition from non-contact to full-contact hockey, and years of bad habits and careless play along with the inability to properly take and deliver a body check will lead to more injuries than any other change to the game. To make matters worse the inability to hit and be hit is replaced by lacrosse-style stick swinging. The furthest measure of the non-contact minor hockey regime was the red, octagonal STOP sign on the back of the jersey which was intended to remind players attempting to check to let-up when they saw their opponents back. This did little to deter the split-second check from happening, and created a false sense of security for players along the boards who grew up thinking they were invisible when they’re back was turned. This has also led to an unfortunate increase in diving, as players embellish the boarding or hit-from-behind call by purposely turning in to it, even launching themselves in to the boards head long.
Now cue the instigator rule. This change had it happened earlier, would have turned ‘The Great One’ in to ‘The Pretty Good One’. Who would Wayne Gretzky be without Dave Semenko? How good could he and the Oilers dynasty have been without Semenko’s forcefield around Wayne? Whether he was on or off the ice Semenko impacted every player on the other team to give Gretzky a wide girth, or suffer the wrath of Semenko. Los Angeles Kings star Dave Taylor recounts a fight that Gretzky initiated with him. He begged Gretzky to stop because if he was hurt Semenko would kill him. How much did Gretzky appreciate it? In 1983 and 1989 Gretzky won NHL All Star Game MVP; he gave the award, a new car, to Semenko each time. Without the ability to physically impose the other team then the games brightest stars, who are also its biggest targets, are left without protection. Not long after this time we see superstar injuries sky-rocket; Mario Lemieux breaks his jaw in a fight, Cam Neely’s career ended by a knee-on-knee play with Ulf Samuelson, Paul Kariya and Eric Lindros are just two of the high-profile players to be left irreparably damaged by a Scott Stevens hit. These stars that could sell the game best were beaten the most brutally, hung out to dry by a league caught between public appeal and physical wellbeing. How much better would the game have sold if its best players were actually playing? Would Stevens and Samuelson make those hits if they knew a beating were coming every time?

Speaking of Scott Stevens, arguably the most crushing open ice hitter the game has ever seen, if he were in his prime today then someone would be dead. The corolation between sinking revenues and television ratings, and rule changes culminated in the NHL becoming the only professional North American league to miss a championship because of a labour dispute. Greedy owners locked out the players and the fans were the victim. The salary cap was a negative blow as GM’s scrambled to find ways to retain players and resorted to front-loaded retirement contracts. NHL player’s careers were shortened even further as reliable journeymen lost jobs to cheaper entry-level players. But the rule changes on the ice coming out of the lockout, fueled by the growing pressure to sell the game after the ‘dead-puck’ era had created a low-scoring, boring league with no stars left who could count backwards from 10, let alone entertain the lay-person.
There would be a salary cap for the front office to battle, and the two line pass would go, as would no-touch icing. Kurtis Foster suffered a gruesome break to the femur in a race for puck what should have been blown dead in the no-touch icing system long before the largest bone in his body was snapped in half. The two line pass has claimed many more victims than the no-touch icing however, and it has led to immediate restructuring of the rule book. The recent debate on headshots on the vague definition of both what is a head shot, and, what is the penalty, is an embarrassment to the league. It is contradictory to the changes the league has implemented, and it is unfair to the players making the hit. The obstruction era of hockey never allowed the type of momentum that a muscled-up jock in a suit of armour traveling on slick ice can now attain without being interfered with, and now that he can receive a pass almost twice as far up the ice as he used to he has gotten a lot longer of a launch pad. This shielded warp-speed athlete grew up not learning how to make or take a hit, how to control his stick, how to keep his head up and now he is cast out in to a league where he is free to fly, and freely grounded with life long repercussions. The 6’5” goon who used to protect him and spent his whole life fighting for a handful of available jobs in the NHL is now out of work because his role is obsolete because it was deemed too violent. Tell that to 5’10” Mike Richards, a repeat offender of career altering hits.

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