Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Information Please

12

Like many of us, Dave Bidini is disturbed by the Rick Rypien tragedy and he wonders whether the hockey culture is at least partly to blame.

How many songs, poems, open-line laments, sports-talk post-mortems or morning columns must we voice before we study that culture for what it really is? …This summer, two hockey players have died. How many stories about dead hockey players do we have to tell before they stop dying?

It has been a sad summer. And the sad summer followed the untimely death of Bob Probert this spring and Tom Cavanagh’s suicide in January. Dave is certainly right in the sense that it is time to actually study the matter. What kind of price are we asking players to pay to entertain us?

(I appreciate that the Canucks were very supportive, and dealt well with a difficult situation. Still, I wonder why Rypien was playing at all given the documented connection between concussions, depression and suicide. My common sense agrees – brain injuries can’t be a good thing for a person battling a brain disease. Hockey – particularly Rypien hockey – is too risky. How was he cleared to play?)

Ian Brown, on the other hand, doesn’t think that question is relevant. Even though his article acknowledges the physical and emotional toll the game takes on players like Rypien, he doesn’t think it matters whether hockey contributed to Rypien’s illness or not.

First, Brown seems to think fighting plays an important role in the game although he doesn’t quite come out and say it. He describes Rypien’s role: He played a handful of minutes a game, and performed the same tasks each shift: subdued opponents who threatened his stars, administered payback and roused the flagging spirits of his team. The job almost always involved violence.

The jobs almost always involved gratuitous violence. None of it is critical to the game of hockey. The league and the officials are supposed to subdue opponents who threaten stars and only a sports league should administer payback. No one can seriously suggest otherwise.

(If enforcers are really supposed to police the game, to make it safer, they are doing a pisspoor job of it. And please, don’t try to tell me that they would do a better job if we did away with the instigator rule. We don’t need more fighting to solve a problem of gratuitous violence.)

Brown acknowledges the more obvious reason we have fighting in the NHL:

We do enjoy watching them fight. We come from that place, deep down, when civilization was not so complex and full of euphemism, back when we beat the shit out of people. In some fundamental way, we admire it when everything else is stripped away…

[E]ven if fighting is discovered to be a cause of depression, no enforcer I’ve met thinks that NHL hockey can give it up. It runs too deep and profitably in the game…

NHL hockey may not be willing to give it up, but at the very least, they should be willing to find out the extent of the problem. What does happen to hockey players when they retire? Is Dave Scatchard an exception or is his experience common enough to be part of a rule? If not the league, the NHLPA should be taking action. We are balancing entertainment and owner’s profits against player safety. The first thing to be learned is “How safe is hockey?”

Right now, we don’t know.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments

12 Responses to “Information Please”
  1. Magicpie says:

    Yup, this problem’s going to get worse and worse as the players become bigger and faster. I can honestly say I don’t really feel quite right when I’m watching football nowadays, just because I know the players are essentially giving themselves brain damage by going out there. I haven’t reached that point with hockey yet, probably because it’s still not as violent as football, but I can see things going in that direction. I really don’t want hockey to turn into something I feel guilty for watching.

    The problem is that I really don’t see what the league can do about it. All this stuff about trying to ban head shots and what have you seems like a dead end. As long as you have 200 pound guys on skates ramming each other at ever increasing speeds you’re going to have concussions. The only thing that will work to prevent them is banning all contact, but…I mean….yeah.

    It’s a really, really shitty choice to make, but I think that’s the way things are heading. We’re either going have to accept that by watching hockey we’re watching people give themselves brain damage for our entertainment, or agree to change the game in a drastic, fundamental way that eliminates a large part of what we love about it. Kind of messed up.

    • speeds says:

      There’s a lot of stuff the NHL could do to leave hitting in the game, but take out the nonsense. Does hockey really need scrums every second whistle? Is there some reason forecheckers need to stop, spraying ice on or near the goalie, and stand 6 inches away and above the goalie, looking to stir things up? Does that sort of thing directly cause concussions – probably not, but does it lead to anything good? Is there any reason Marchand shouldn’t have gotten a roughing minor (maybe even for each time he punched Sedin in the face) last final? What is the value added by leaving that sort of behavior in the game?

  2. Tom says:

    It’s a really, really shitty choice to make, but I think that’s the way things are heading. We’re either going have to accept that by watching hockey we’re watching people give themselves brain damage for our entertainment, or agree to change the game in a drastic, fundamental way that eliminates a large part of what we love about it. Kind of messed up.

    I’m more optimistic. First, I’d like to know the extent of the problem. Everything is anecdotal evidence. There is a lot of disturbing anecdotal evidence, but I’d first like to know the extent of the problem.

    Second, I think we can make changes that are not so drastic or fundamental. There will always be some concussions, but devastating health problems has to be unusual, exceptions, abnormal. It is feeling too normal for me these days.

    What we would have to do is eliminate gratuitous violence and keep the hockey violence. One easy fix is to dump the fighting. A second change would eliminate late hits. Instead of letting the checker hit a guy two or three beats after the puck is gone, make it one beat. (This would reduce the hitting – now 50,000 a year – to a level that was more like it was in the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s. The game has become steadily more violent over the past twenty years.)

    The league made a change like this to increase offense. When a forward dumps the puck past a d-man today, the d-man has to be right on top of him to deliver a hit. Otherwise it is interference. If the league defined interference the same way all over the ice, players would have to be more in control. There would be less hitting, less hitting at very high speeds and fewer concussions.

    • Magicpie says:

      What we would have to do is eliminate gratuitous violence and keep the hockey violence.

      My issue with that, though, is that even if you were to get rid of the gratuitous violence (by which I’m assuming you mean late hits, blatant head shots, etc.), the regular hockey violence that’s left over would still be enough to keep things going on a bad trajectory.

      I think that the basic problem is that the players are so much bigger, stronger and faster now that even the average, clean hockey hit is a lot more likely to lead or contribute to a concussion today than it was 20-30 years ago. And since the players are probably going to keep getting stronger and faster for the foreseeable future, things are going to keep getting worse.

      I have no doubt that getting rid of the dirty hits would lower concussions in the short term. However it wouldn’t do anything to solve that basic problem, and in a few years we’d be right back where we are now.

  3. Don says:

    Sorry Tom, can’t agree with this. I fully endorse your take about eliminating gratuitous voilence in hockey, but trying to blur the line with concussions, fighting and mental health is gratuitous headline shopping. There is absolutely no causal effect, yet anyway. Mental health issues are extremely prevalent in today’s society in every single demographic. It’s a serious problem and I’d bet you’d be shocked by the statistics. Trying to tie Rypien’s death to this very small causality cheapens the entire field. what else did they have in common?…the list would be endless.

    • Tom says:

      It’s a serious problem and I’d bet you’d be shocked by the statistics. Trying to tie Rypien’s death to this very small causality cheapens the entire field. what else did they have in common?…

      I would not be surprised. I know it is prevalent in every demographic. I did not intend to try to tie Rypien’s death to fighting. I responded really negatively to Brown’s piece because 1) he acknowledges the possibility that hockey was a contributing factor, and 2) it doesn’t matter whether it was or not because hockey would not be hockey without fighting.

      I don’t know whether Rypien’s occupation contributed to his death or not. I don’t think anyone does. I don’t even know if he has a history of concussion.

      I do think it is possible given the link between brain injury and mental health issues but I don’t think causality really matters. Even if we assume the depression predated any hockey injury, we have a player diagnosed with clinical depression. Is hockey – or any other job that involves a significant risk of concussion – a suitable occupation?

      • Don says:

        Good response Tom. And now with belak’s death it throws more fuel onto the fire. Wow, the media is in frenzy mode now. It’s going to be very difficult to avoid knee jerk reactions and “solutions”. I agree, we need more information, all I ask is that they take a bigger view of the situation. I would love to get more involvement from the PA to ensure a broad assessment of the player’s point of view is heard. Right now there is an expert for every microphone available, much of this stuff is still in it’s infancy with respect to substantive knowledge. So many theories, so many rabbit holes to go down. Take it slow Gary.

        • Tom says:

          Unfortunately, I don’t think the NHL and the NHLPA will respond in a way that addresses the issue. I don’t think it is good enough to closely examine these three deaths – the circumstances always turn out to be unique – and review the programs designed to help players.

          We need data. How does playing professional hockey affect long term health? How does being an enforcer affect long term health? What is the price being paid? Nobody is forcing the players to play or fight, but they don’t have the information they need to make the choice either.

          I accept that Boogard’s case was an accident, but drugs and alcohol are also a way to numb oneself. Rypien had problems for a long time. But Belak? Here’s a happy go lucky guy who from all reports was smart and intelligent. He did have a post career path in front of him. What kind of pain was he in? Obviously a lot. Why?

          I can understand why a Wade Belak could feel like a fraud. He didn’t want to make the NHL as an enforcer. He grew up wanting to be a star and he probably was a star until he reached the NHL. He did not make it as hockey player. He made it as a hockey fighter. At some level he knew his job was unnecessary, a circus sideshow. Many fans – myself included – think the game would be better off without the Wade Belaks of the league. Who wants to be known as a goon? Who wants to booed vociferously on the road? Who wants to only play in garbage time or when he is expected to fight? Who wants that as a Hobson’s choice? Fight or give up the NHL and NHL money.

          I wonder whether he was affected by the Rypien suicide. I wonder whether Belak thought about the impact his death would have on the league and whether maybe he hoped some good would come from the questions raised first with Rypien and now with him.

          I wonder all these things without knowing anything at all. Maybe we are just looking at a tragic coincidence, a cluster that can be safely ignored. At this stage all I’m really saying is “Let’s find out.”

          It isn’t good enough any more to say, “It happens all the time in real life. Nothing to do with hockey. Nothing to see here. Move along now. How bout those Canucks, eh?”

Trackbacks

Check out what others are saying about this post...
  1. [...] TOM BENJAMIN: would like to see the NHL, or at the very least the NHLPA, conduct some form of investigation into any potential link between fighting and depression in NHL players, as well as the after-effects of concussions for former NHL players. [...]

  2. [...] • A couple of days late, but Tom Benjamin on the Rick Rypien tragedy and the role of fighters in the game is worth a read: “The jobs almost always involved gratuitous violence. None of it is critical to the game of hockey. The league and the officials are supposed to subdue opponents who threaten stars and only a sports league should administer payback. No one can seriously suggest otherwise.” [Canucks Corner] [...]

  3. [...] ? A couple of days late, but Tom Benjamin on the Rick Rypien tragedy and the role of fighters in the game is worth a read: “The jobs almost always involved gratuitous violence. None of it is critical to the game of hockey. The league and the officials are supposed to subdue opponents who threaten stars and only a sports league should administer payback. No one can seriously suggest otherwise.” [Canucks Corner] [...]



Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!