Wednesday, December 06, 2006

It’s a hitting game, but who’ll be left to play it?

There’s no doubt that hockey has long been a game of violent collisions, bodies hurtle across the ice at top speed, whether it’s the boards or a shoulder or hip, inevitably something stops that progress. The concept of the game is to stop the offence from gaining your end of the ice; a body check serves that need nicely. Most times the impact only stops the flow of that play, lately though it seems to send players off to a MASH unit. It’s a game not for the faint of heart nor the weak of body, but surely there comes a time when you have to wonder if perhaps the need for brutal force needs to be reined in a bit.

Monday night in Vancouver, the Canucks sent three separate players off to the dressing rooms not to return for the rest of the night. By the end of the game Monday the Canuck’s bench resembled the morning skate on an optional day.

A few weeks ago it was a Vancouver Canuck, Willie Mitchell who delivered a crushing hit on Johan Franzen, a blow that sent the Red Wing off to hospital for observations and left the Red Wings sputtering in rage on the bench and vowing a payback at some date in the future.

Last night the Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson was taken off to the dressing room never to return to the ice, a quick scan of the NHL’s injury report shows name after name. many of them some of the most talented players in the league on the shelf, some for a few days, some for a few weeks some for much longer. No offence to Danny Bois who gets the call up to replace the captain tonight, but if you're shelling out the top dollar, you're not exactly telling your friends that you can't wait to see Bois weave his magic on the ice!

The speed of the game, the size of the players and the change in design of the equipment are among some of the culprits for the spike in injuries. In some cases it’s a blatant disregard for the safety of their fellow players, with a cheap shot, a slew foot or an ugly looking knee or elbow delivered with clear malice. Lately it’s the head shots that have become the most worrisome trend, blows that not only leave a player sprawled out on the ice, but possibly in a career ending position.

The players are the show, but more often than not they’re finding that they can’t make it to the show time anymore. It’s something that should be a cause for concern for the league, as many of their marquee players are going down for lengthy periods of time. Is it any wonder that the attendance figures in the USA are dropping at an alarming rate? On any given night the players you think will be there are more likely to be sitting up in a press box watching the game if they’re even there at all.

The Tyee, a British Columbia based web portal has put together a look at the increasing injury load of the NHL and the impact it may be having on the style of play.

Hard hits will always be a part of the game, but in the end it comes down to respect. If the players don’t respect the game they play, or its players, then it’s only a matter of time before the fans turn away. There aren’t many fans that pay the top dollars of today’s NHL to see the fourth line end up as the starting line, or to watch NHL trainers work on their first aid skills.

The league needs to change the dynamic that is causing the increase in the injury parade and set in motion the solutions to the problem. While hockey has always been a team game, it’s the players at the top of their profession that bring the fans into the rink and glue their eyeballs to a television set. All the rule changes that can be put in place to add to the offense will go for naught if there’s nobody recognizable left in the line up to pick up the puck!

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