Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

It Isn’t That Hard

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Ellen Etchingham makes a number of thoughtful and valid points in this post on concussions, the culture of hitting in the NHL and in hockey more generally, and finding a workable (and effective) disciplinary system. She concludes with:

What we often forget when proposing new punishments is that the players are not only objects of the disciplinary regime but co-creators of it. The NHL cannot simply dream up a system and impose it as though skaters were unruly children or bad dogs. To have the slightest hope of being implemented, any revised disciplinary structure must speak to the interests and desires of the players who will be playing under it. Thankfully, for perhaps the first time ever, the interests broad cross-section of players are starting to weigh on the side of deterring concussions rather than causing them. You can thank Colby Armstrong for that.

I have not commented on the Raffi Torres suspension, mostly because anything I say about it will be a rehash of an argument that I have been making in one forum or another since Marty McSorley brained Donald Brashear with his hockey stick. I can’t help seeing Torres as a scapegoat, a suitable player to vilify as the problem.

I agree with Ellen’s assertion that the players have to become more involved in deciding suspensions, but I don’t think there is any way the problem can be solved with discipline.

The first step is to decide that the league really does want to solve the problem. They don’t. We know this because Gary Bettman was bragging about how hitting was up in the playoffs while the hits under review piled up on Shanahan’s desk. The league’s absurd position is that NHL hockey can keep the same level of physical play – 55,000 hits a year – while eliminating the 50 to 100 Raffi Torres moments.

Raffi Torres wanted to knock Hossa into next week but he did not want to take a penalty and he did not want to be suspended for 25 games. He misjudged the hit by a fraction and the result is another stretcher on the ice. If Aaron Rome had been a split second earlier his hit on Nathan Horton would have been perfectly legal. The line (that should never be crossed) is in fact a very fine one. Transgressions are inevitable no matter how heavy we make the suspensions. Mistakes are happening more frequently these days because the game has become much faster and hitters have less time to make a choice.

The NHL has to decide whether they are prepared to ratchet back on the physical play or whether they want to substantially reduce the concussion rate and substantially increase the emphasis on player safety. They cannot have it both ways. The strategy today is to continue to sell the gratuitous violence while pretending to address the problem by scapegoating the likes of Raffi Torres.

The real choice? Either we decide that hockey has become too dangerous and ratchet back to about 1990 levels of violence or we accept that every so often a player will make a mistake. We accept that there will be an occasional ugly incident. We accept and understand that Raffi Torres was trying to do what he is paid to do and simply made a mistake.

The league is pretending to address the problem because they believe – probably correctly – that the gratuitous violence puts money in the till. If the league really wanted to stop the concussion plague, they can do it quite easily, but they cannot do it and keep all the physicality of the modern game.

If the league did choose change two things are required:

1) Vigilante justice has to be eliminated. It is the responsibility of the officials, not the players, to police the game. What difference does it make if Duncan Keith concusses Daniel Sedin in a fight or with an elbow? If he wants to avenge a hit the officials chose not to punish, he’d better find a way to do it within the rules.

2) Reduce the number of hits – and the number of Raffi Torres mistakes – by properly interpreting interference. If a player gets rid of the puck before the defender commits to the hit, he should not be fair game. There is no hockey reason to allow a free shot when the puck is long gone.

The result would be a safer game without fighting and with about 75% of the hitting. The Raffi Torres and Todd Bertuzzi incidents would not entirely go away, but there would be a lot fewer of them.

I can understand why the league (and most fans) are not in favour of this kind of radical change. The fans want the big hits and the fights and the league wants the cash. Radical change won’t come soon unless the fear of lawsuits from damaged retired players changes the economic equation. Fair enough.

In the meantime, could we stop pretending that Raffi Torres is the problem and that crucifying Raffi Torres is actually addressing the issue? That might make the rest of us feel better about our bloodlust and feel less responsible for the brains being scrambled, but it doesn’t prevent more scrambling.

The issue isn’t that hard to understand or solve once we face up to the real choice. Are we asking too much of the players for the sake of our entertainment? If we are not willing to decide that the game has become too violent?

Keep the cash register ringing. String up Raffi Torres. That will work just like stringing up villains has worked in the past.

The wheels of the bus go round and round, eh Raffi?

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Comments

8 Responses to “It Isn’t That Hard”
  1. Par says:

    Precisely.

  2. beingbobbyorr says:

    The fans want the big hits and the fights and the league wants the cash.

    I’d like to know if there are any objective market surveys that (a) support the notion that hockey consumer spending really tracks violence, and (b) distinguish between how much of that support is distributed between fighting-type violence vs. wicked-body-checking-type violence.

    i.e., if we created a graph with year (1970 to 2012) on the X axis, and plotted three curves, where . . .

    curve 1 = percent of available tickets sold (revenue, relative to what was available)
    curve 2 = PIMs/player/game (violence)
    curve 3 = goals/game or shots/game (scoring) . . . . maybe per 60 minutes to amortize OT

    . . . what kind of correlation might we see for curve 2 vs. curve 1 as compared to curve 3 vs. curve 1?

    ratchet back to about 1990 levels of violence

    IIRC, 1990 levels of violence (that we assume created fewer concussions*), involved a lot more fighting (pre-instigator rule?) and a lot less wicked body checks, mostly because the players were smaller, hadn’t yet gotten as religious about fitness and power-skating regimens, and didn’t have today’s disposable, featherweight skates.

    If my memory is correct, how do you propose slowing down today’s players? Mandatory tube skates? All-pizza summertime diets? Minimum shift times of, say, 90 seconds (which I’ve seriously suggested here before)?

    * although the issue of data integrity (How do you measure the degree to which the phenomena of concussions were taken seriously in the hockey culture as a function of time? How many concussion-events per year go unreported due to players ‘sucking it up’?, etc.,) is deuces-wild.

  3. Tom says:

    If there is objective data, it was commissioned by the NHL and they are not sharing it. Whatever surveys they’ve done, the league believes that violence sells. When Clarence Campbell was testifying before an inquiry into hockey violence in the 1970′s, and he acknowledged as much. Nothing has changed in that regard. At the very least, they are afraid to try to sell the game without it. There are plenty of places

    I did not express the 1990′s thought very well. The league position is that they don’t want “to take any of the physicality out of the game” as if today’s level of hitting is a historical norm. Thunderous open ice hits were very rare before players armored up because the hitter was at nearly the same risk as the hittee.

    I’m saying that because players are bigger and faster and more armored up and because of all these things they get more opportunities to hit and they hit more. We can’t slow them down or make them slower or eliminate padding but we can reduce their opportunity to hit. We can stop them from hitting players after the puck is gone. We wouldn’t take the physicality out of the game. We’d just dial back the hitting to where it was 20 years ago.

    I think we are beyond the data integrity issue. We know marginal players still probably conceal concussions, although there is probably more awareness among the non-marginal. The league has the data about reported concussions and again they are not sharing. They are concerned enough to take “action” even if only to protect themselves in future lawsuits.

  4. PopsTwitTar says:

    Well said, Tom. I’ve long believed we need a specific penalty for a “late hit”. Because we need to change players mindsets – finishing your check is always necessary. There are numerous examples every game where a defenseman has moved the puck out of the zone, taken 3 or 4 strides, and had to deal with a player who has skated over just to put a body on him for no reason. This allegedly will “soften” the defenseman for later in the game, as if that actually works. But Ellen is also right – if the NHL doesnt to change the mindset through penalties and enforcement because it believes its good for revenue, then the NHLPA needs to stand up and be the leader.

    • Roberto says:

      Just call it what Ken Dryden did – interference. Why we allow a certain level of interference on a player who is not in control of the puck is beyond me. Because Keenan demanded it? Because Tortorella does now? Because Cherry is all for it? Hunter?

      I’ll never understand why the opinion of the “hard working”, “gritty” (read, largely under-talented) player is held with greater esteem than that of the great players. I never once heard Gretzky and LeMieux calling out for more interference. Quite the opposite, actually.

      • Tom says:

        I think we just gradually slipped into it. Howie Meeker popularized the term “finish the check” but we were still talking about a blink after the puck was gone. The blink became a beat, then two beats. I think the drfit occured because lots of the late hits were big hits and the fans liked big hits.

        I don’t think eliminating the late hits would actually hurt the defence, but it would eliminate a lot of hits. The league wants the hitting. Changing the current interpretation of interference is a non-starter and to even suggest it is tilting at a windmill.

        At this stage, I’d be happy if we stopped clucking at Raffi Torres (or Todd Bertuzzi, for that matter) for their mistakes. When fans or nonfans recoil in horror, the correct response should be a shrug. “These things will happen in a physical game. Since we don’t want to get rid of any hitting or the fighting, its hypocritical to complain when someone is hit too hard or the vigilante justice gets out of hand.”

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  1. [...] CANUCKS CORNER: Tom Benjamin believes the real reason why the NHL doesn’t do more to crack down on dangerous hits is because they really don’t want to solve the problem. [...]



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