Drawing the Line on Hockey Violence
Canadians know what HOCKEY is supposed to sound like. The hiss of sharp skates on fresh ice. The thump and rattle of bodies against the boards. The ping of a puck hitting a crossbar. That's why it wasn't just the sight of Max Pacioretty's head bouncing off a stanchion that shocked a sold-out crowd at Montreal's Bell Centre on March 8, it was the noise - a percussive ring like a sledgehammer driving a spike. Propelled from behind by towering Boston defenceman Zdeno Chara, the Habs winger struck the thinly padded metal pole with enough force to crack a vertebra in his neck. The fact that he wasn't left paralyzed, or didn't die there on the ice in front of the players' benches - as many watching in the stands and on TV at home initially feared - was more a function of luck than his protective equipment, or the quick medical response. A few centimetres to one side or the other, the impact just a slight bit faster, and the 22-year-old American could have left the rink a martyr to our national sport.
As it is, Pacioretty is now at home in a darkened room recovering from the neck fracture and a severe concussion. When, or if, he will ever play again remains an open question. What is clear, however, is that the hit that injured him has changed the game, and the way many see it. The NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE's decision not to impose additional punishment on Chara for the hit (the six-foot-nine, 255 lb. Slovak received a five-minute major for interference and a game misconduct) was met with incredulity from his victim. "I'm upset and disgusted," Pacioretty told TSN. "I'm not mad for myself. I'm mad because if other players see a hit like that and think it's okay, they won't be suspended, then other players will get hurt like I got hurt." But it was the ensuing howls of outrage from fans, politicians, media, and for the first time, some of the game's sponsors, that really seem to have captured the league's attention.
Last Thursday, speaking to reporters after briefing members of the U.S. Congress on the future of hockey, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called the Pacioretty hit "a horrific accident," but argued that cracking down on Chara "wouldn't change what happened." Four days later, he was back in front of the cameras at a general managers' meeting in Florida, announcing a five-point plan to deal with the scourge of head shots in the professional game. Under Bettman's new proposals, teams and coaches will, for the first time, face fines and suspensions if their players are deemed to be "repeat offenders." Safety engineers will be dispatched to examine the boards and glass of every rink in the league, empowered to order immediate upgrades. One joint league and player committee will examine changes to equipment to increase protection and lessen the effect of blows, another will continue to study concussions. And perhaps most importantly for the health of players, head injuries will no longer be treated on the bench with a 1920s-style dose of smelling salts. Beginning next week, any player suspected of sustaining a concussion will have to be removed from the game and evaluated by a physician, not a trainer, "in a quiet area." Only after he has successfully passed a screening test will he be allowed to return to play.
Coming on the day that the game's biggest star, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, finally skated for the first time since taking two cheap shots to the head at the beginning of January, the safety-first announcement will strike many as belated. And given recent revelations that 16 seasons of duking it out left the late Bob Probert with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that has already been diagnosed in some boxers and football players, maybe it is even a case of too little, too late. But if the NHL has finally started to get the message, the league still lags well behind its fans' concerns.
A new Maclean's poll, prepared by Angus Reid, shows that Canadians now rank hockey as the pro sport most likely to cause a head injury, with a full 90 per cent of those surveyed rating the national game as a significant risk, compared to 83 per cent for boxing, 71 per cent for football, and just 53 per cent for mixed martial arts. Among those who identify themselves as "true" hockey fans, the number is even higher - 94 per cent. The sample of 1,021 people is considered accurate within 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
Nationally, just six per cent believe the NHL is doing a very good job of protecting its players. And 34 per cent of respondents say they are concerned enough about recent on-ice violence that they would definitely, or probably, discourage their children from playing, up six per cent from a similar poll in the wake of Chris Simon's 2007 slash to Ryan Hollweg's face, an attack that netted the then-Islanders tough guy 25 games. Sixty per cent of Canadians said they think pro hockey has become more violent in the past five years (in the 2007 survey, 48 per cent felt the same). In Quebec, where passions are sky-high, 80 per cent see more thuggery in the NHL. "I think the anger about this hit nationally is palpable," says Jaideep Mukerji, vice-president of Angus Reid Public Opinion. "And in Quebec, people are absolutely apoplectic."
Opinion on Chara's punishment splits along regional lines and fan allegiance - 91 per cent of Quebecers and 88 per cent of Montreal fans say it was too lenient, for example, compared to 52 per cent of British Columbians, or 45 per cent of CALGARY FLAMES backers. But there is widespread support for an outright ban on head shots, with 81 per cent of all respondents, and 83 per cent of fans, saying that the game would be better off without them. (In contrast, a total ban on fighting gains the approval of just 41 per cent of all those surveyed, and just 13 per cent of fans.) Air Canada's much publicized threat to end its sponsorship arrangements with the six Canadian franchises over the Chara hit was supported by 70 per cent in the poll, though just 13 per cent say they would boycott a league sponsor to protest on-ice violence. The backlash is more likely to start at home, with 34 per cent of all respondents - and a quarter of hockey fans outside Quebec - saying they are considering watching fewer games. It's a potentially dangerous sign for a league that has always been able to count on its Canadian fans, come hell or high water. "Maybe it's cumulative like concussions," says Mukerji. "The more incidents, the more pressure there is to do something."
Start the vicious timeline wherever you like. Billy Coutu, the first NHL player banned for life, after a 1927 Stanley Cup final game where he started a bench-clearing brawl, then attacked the refs. Or the first all-star game in 1934, a benefit for Toronto's Ace Bailey, who almost died from a hit from behind by Boston's Eddie Shore. Ultra-violence is part of the game's lore. But in recent years, it's become harder and harder to excuse fits of rage and chronic lapses of judgment as simply "old-time hockey." Marty McSorley on Donald Brashear. Todd Bertuzzi on Steve Moore. Matt Cooke on Marc Savard. Chris Simon on everybody. With each fresh outrage, more and more fans have said, "enough."
Still, without Sidney Crosby's concussion problems, would the issue of head shots even be on the table? Transformed from the face of the game to its conscience, he continues to shape the debate. "As far as deliberate head shots, you don't lose anything from the game if you take that away," he told reporters after resuming skating. "You don't lose anything at all." In the past, stars like Pat LaFontaine, Eric Lindros and Keith Primeau have had their careers cut short by repeated knocks to the head. But it is the absence of Canada's gold medal Olympic hero, the most marketable player in the league, that has made even non-fans sit up and pay attention.
"There's no question that there are concerns out there," says Bob Nicholson, the president of HOCKEY CANADA. "And we have to find a way to clean up our game." Charged with managing everything from the grassroots to the OLYMPIC TEAMS, his organization is acutely aware of the challenges facing the sport. Enrolment at the minor levels is in steep decline. This year, there are 560,000 kids playing hockey across the country, down from 577,000 a year ago, and 585,000 in 2009. At the current rate of attrition, there could be 200,000 fewer players by 2021. Soaring costs and changing cultural tastes are part of the challenge - in 2007, there were 868,000 kids playing soccer in Canada. So are concerns over player safety. "It's always been there when we try to recruit youngsters," says Nicholson. But increasingly, there seems to be a disconnect between the way the game is played and taught at the grassroots level and what kids and parents see on TV. "Look at the way Hockey Night in Canada and the sports networks introduce their games - with big hits. And big hits translate into concussions. There is a negative part there," says Nicholson. "We have to stand up and let parents know that we are doing everything we can to make the game safe."
Canada's politicians certainly sense an outrage that should be addressed - or tapped into, depending on your level of cynicism. With a federal election looming, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is promising "action" on the problem of head injuries in children's sport, broadly defined in this case as a public awareness campaign. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has gone a step further, suggesting Ottawa should step into the NHL game, too. "There is a strong feeling here in the House of Commons that if they don't act, then, you know, we should get involved," he said last week. In Quebec, the province's director of criminal and penal prosecutions, Louis Dionne, has saved politicians the trouble, ordering Montreal police to investigate whether charges should be laid against Chara. (The force certainly won't be short of witnesses. After the NHL handed down its no-suspension decision, Montreal's 911 network was overwhelmed with angry calls.)
However, that part at least closely follows past scripts. The difference with the Pacioretty hit seems to be that it has released not just public anger about the game, but corporate angst as well. Air Canada's blistering letter to Bettman may have been more a product of CEO Calin Rovinescu's unbridled love of the Habs than a belief in corporate social responsibility, but it kick-started a debate. Pestered by the media for their views about on-ice violence, other league sponsors were drawn into the fray. To be sure, no one actually did anything, but for once, some actually talked. "I don't think it's just this one incident. It's been building for a long time," says Norm O'Reilly, a professor of sports management at the University of Ottawa. "Sponsors want to be associated with a fast, aggressive sport, but when it comes to the point of someone almost dying, they get nervous." At some point the negatives - hello Tiger - start to outweigh the positives. "Sponsors aren't in it for philanthropy or the love of the game," says O'Reilly.
Brian Cooper, president of the S&E Sponsorship Group, a Toronto sports marketing firm, paints Air Canada and Via Rail, another Montreal-headquartered sponsor who complained about the hit, as hypocrites. "There have been many, many occasions over the decades where they could have complained, and they've never said anything," he notes. The reality, says Cooper, is that in Canada at least, the NHL remains the hottest of properties. "It's hard to find an opportunity to sponsor hockey because they're all taken up."
Just a month ago, the league signed its biggest-ever deal, making Molson Coors its "official" beer on both sides of the border for the next seven years in return for close to $400 million. "Hockey and beer go together," Andy England, chief marketing officer of MillerCoors, told the New York Times. "In fact, we have data that shows hockey fans are the biggest beer drinkers of any major sports league." NHL sponsorship revenues are up 32 per cent this season, after new deals were clinched with Bridgestone, Cisco Systems, Tim Hortons and Canadian Tire, among others. A strategy that builds on large-scale events like the Winter Classic, and digital media, seems to have found favour. In fact, 2010-11 is shaping up to be the league's fifth straight year of growth, notes Brian Jennings, the NHL's executive VP of marketing.
Chara's hit on Pacioretty, already in the league's rear-view mirror, has led to some rule changes, but probably isn't enough to change the game's culture. And if Crosby returns to action soon, the danger that the current momentum will be lost (or at least misplaced until the next on-ice catastrophe) increases exponentially.
In Montreal, angry fans were still planning a demonstration outside the Bell Centre and an online petition drive demanding further action on head shots. "People don't want to see this kind of violence anymore," says Victor Henriquez, one of the organizers. Since emigrating from Chile 15 years ago, he's learned to love the game - and curse the league - like most other Canadians. "It's not their sport. It's our sport," says Henriquez. "It's time to draw the line."
Which of the following professional sports do you feel carry a significant risk of head injuries?
Mixed martial arts 53%
In your view, what impact, if any, would banning fighting have on the game of hockey?
41% Hockey would be better off
27% Hockey would be worse off
26% Hockey would be no better or worse off
6% Not sure
In your view, what impact, if any, would banning head shots have on the game of hockey?
81% Hockey would be better off
12% Hockey would be no better or worse off
4% Not sure
2% Hockey would be worse off
Maclean's March 28, 2011