Monday, April 5, 2010

The Battle Within

In a season in which shots to the head have been the story in the NHL, the Avalanche have suddenly found themselves in the middle of a sticky predicament.

During the Avalanche win against San Jose, a win which will likely vault the young team into the playoffs, former Avalanche hero Rob Blake knocked out Peter Mueller with a hard, blindside hit into the end boards.

Mueller is now out indefinitely with a concussion. As we all know, when "indefinitely" is mentioned in the same sentence as "concussion" it could be a long time before Mueller sees the ice again.

At the time Mueller had racked up three points in the contest, scoring two important goals in the process. He has benefitted from a rebirth in Colorado, and is seeing the kind of time on a top line that he wasn't getting in Dave Tippett's doghouse in Phoenix.

What is frustrating about the hit is that Blake didn't seem to intend to do anything malicious. The hit in every sense of the word was purely irresponsible. It was a "heat of battle" incident. Mueller was about to receive the puck and a charging Blake threw him hard into the boards at an awkward angle.

Understandably many Avalanche fans are outraged, and are demanding Blake receive a suspension for the hit. But the problem is again, that Blake didn't seem to intend to do anything malicious. He was simply playing hard in an important game. Blake managed to avoid an interference penalty, as Mueller had yet to touch the puck, but that should have been the end of any punishment.

As hockey players continue to stretch the tape with their size and weight every season I fear we will only see more of these kinds of injuries. Injuries which occur when gigantic, strong people moving at high speeds collide with each other.

To further complicate matters, hockey pads these days do more to protect players than they ever have, while at the same time allowing players to throw themselves at the opposition with less fear of injury. Alex Ovechkin takes advantage of this every time he charges an opposing player.

Paradoxically, many players such a Mueller continue to wear helmets which don't provide much actual protection. By "actual" I am referring to the difference between a stripped down, loose fitting, hockey helmet, and a football helmet which encapsulates the entire head. The NHL has been looking into different kinds of helmets which will fit more tightly on a players head, and with any luck new models should be introduced in the coming seasons. But in the end that just doesn't do it for me because we are simply putting band-aids on top of band-aids.

The biggest problem isn't the equipment or the size of the players. It is the attitude of players which may have to change, and subsequently the attitude of the fans. Changing that is far more difficult than introducing new equipment or rules.

Let's be honest. Hockey is entertaining for its hits and fights as well as its fast pace and scoring. Players are trained to hit hard, and fans like the players to hit hard. With that attitude something eventually happens, players get hurt, and fans end up outraged in some form or another. It is that way because we like it that way on some level. We enjoy the drama.

I've always wondered why we get so upset when someone on our team gets hurt by a hard hit, yet we feel such a perverse sense of joy every time an opposing player gets hit in the same manner. Is it a gladiator mentality? Is it bloodlust?

If something has to give then what do we as fans want? Do we take the NHL for what it is: a fast-paced, hard hitting sport? Or do we want players floating around with couch cushions on their bodies, being whistled for penalties like "skating too fast?"

With the erratic leadership being shown by the governors of the NHL at some point we may need to realize that what we are seeing on the ice is exactly what we are going to get, because in the end at some level, we want it to be that way.

The culture of the game hasn't changed much since its inception, only the players are bigger, faster, and more well protected. The injures we are seeing now are a function of those improvements and progress. Could sloppy hits be remedied by some better leadership at the top? Certainly. But I don't trust solid leadership to emerge from the top of the NHL any time soon.

Until then, we are going to have to take the good with the bad, meaning we have to take Peter Mueller's injury for what it is, unfortunate.

1 comment:

Scott Pantall said...

I think the reason the NHL is so inconsistent with their punishments for dirty hits is because they know the system they have now doesn't work, but they don't want to put in too many rules and end up with a no-contact sport.

There's no way the NHL can find the happy medium between exciting and dangerous if they're not willing to go a little too far and run the risk of losing some of the excitement.