Don’t get me wrong – I don’t disagree with the new visor rule and it was probably well overdue. The deflected puck that hit Marc Staal likely hastened the rule to be implemented and there is no doubt that it will save 2 or 3 players a year from serious eye injury. Over the years there have been a number of gruesome incidents that visors would have eliminated – here’s a list of some of the worst.
A lot of the articles that covered the new visor rule focused on the opinion that it would bring about the end of fighting. That enforcers would not fight an opponent who was wearing a shield because it was somehow against the unwritten and nonsensical “the code”. Another rule that was added in the off season gave combatants an extra penalty if they removed their helmets. These two new rules in combination were discussed by sports journalists as if fighting was now firmly on its way out. The beginning of this season has cast some doubt on that as fights per game are up over last year.
But if the NHL really cares about player safety why do they continue to avoid taking action on fighting. Their own statistics, released at their last winter meeting, reported that 8% of concussions are caused by fights. Players are continuing to be sidelined at a much higher rate than any incident involving sticks or pucks to the face. Here’s a recent summary:
- Oct 13 -2011 - Jay Beagle – Concussion
- Feb-2011 – Rick DiPietro – Broken facial bone
- Mar-2012 - Brandon Dubinsky – Hand injury
- Jan-2013 – Ryan Callahan – Shoulder
- Jan-2013 – Scott Thornton - Concussion
- Jan-2013 - Mike Brown - Shoulder
- Feb-2013 - Tye McGinn - Broken orbital bone
- Mar-2013 - Dave Dziurzynski - Concussion
- Apr-2013 - Nathan Horton - Shoulder
- Apr-2013 - Tom Kostopoulos – Facial injury
This is hardly an exhaustive list, only the ones that came up during a few minutes on Google. But even this summary demonstrates that far more players are injured after they drop the gloves versus anything related to the mandatory visor rule. All of the fight injuries are also suffered after play has stopped and both players are involved in an activity that is against the rules. NHLPA members will tell you that enforcers make the game safer by “policing” and reducing cheap shots – a dubious claim at best – but they should focus on the injuries you can clearly see versus the mythical ones that are prevented.
My aversion to fighting in hockey has more to do with the negative image that it casts on the sport. Hockey should be about the speed of the game, fast skaters, pin-point passing, great puck handling, hard hits and acrobatic goal-tending. There is nothing worse than watching two 4th line players, who do nothing but interrupt an exciting game, drop the gloves and drag the sport down to something akin to wrestling on skates. Hockey is promoting and tolerating an aspect of the game that should be eliminated or reduced to the level that you see in other professional sports.
But the impact of fighting on the health of NHL players warrants a serious look by the NHL Player Safety Department. They should be doing everything possible to protect all players, even those that I don’t think belong in the league, because of the long-term impact that fighting can have. Pushing for real progress could protect many NHL enforcers from a lifetime of neurological problems and do the same for junior hockey players who are trying to get noticed by scouts because of their fists. The NHLPA should be working with them on this issue by educating their membership on the health risks and dispelling the myths around momentum, policing and tradition.