Friday, 25 January 2013

NHL Cares About Player Safety – Just Don’t Ask Them About Fighting

The NHL has been very vocal about how progressive they are in the area of player safety.  A little over a year ago they announced a Department of Player Safety.  Brendan Shanahan has become the new face of player discipline, handing out stiffer penalties in an effort to reduce head shots.  At the same time he participates in committees that look at equipment and rule changes designed to make the game safer.  So why is fighting ignored or dismissed as an area of concern?

There is no question that the NHL is serious about reducing concussions.  Perhaps they are genuinely concerned about the players’ career as well as their long-term health after the game.  More likely their safety initiatives have more to do with reducing time lost on the ice as that has a direct impact on revenues.  A program of tracking and reducing concussions is also good for the league’s image making it easier to attract corporate sponsors and advertisers.  I’m sure there is also some self-preservation involved with the NHL demonstrating they are aggressively targeting head trauma in case a group of retired players are considering law suits similar to those brought against the NFL.
Let’s review the NHL’s words to build the case that they are setting the standard for player safety when compared with other professional leagues.
"From a player safety standpoint, what happens in fighting is something we need to look at just as we need to look at hits to the head," Bettman told reporters after a news conference in Toronto to announce the NHL had reached a new six-year broadcast deal with the CBC.  March, 2007.
Here are a series of quotes from a March 2010 article announcing an education program where players were required to watch a DVD of what constitutes a legal or illegal hit.
"We're all in support of a rule that protects the players from head shots. At the same time, you don't want to take the aggressiveness out of the game.”  Shawn Horcoff

"They have to add a penalty, or else people may feel it's worth it to take out a player.  You have to assess a minor or major penalty, or else it doesn't hurt the team. Otherwise, it might be worth it in a playoff situation. In the playoffs, what's to say it's not a smart move to go after a guy?"  Jamal Mayers

"If you look at the number of total hits in the NHL season, compared to the hits we see over and over, those dirty headshot hits, it's a very small percentage. What they're trying to do get rid of really bad, vicious hits. When a guy's targeting a player's head, we all know it."  Robyn Reghr

"Nobody wants to be out there in fear that they might (suffer) a career-ending injury and then you can't do what you love to do. I like the fact they're cracking down on it. They should punish guys who make the effort to hit somebody in the head."  Troy Brouwer

"It's something that needed to be looked after and I am glad it's being looked after.  Hits to the head should not be tolerated."  Mike Babcock

"There's a respect factor involved. You've got to be responsible. If you target a guy's head, it's going to cost you and your team."  Matt Stajan

“To even better address player safety an area in which we have consistently had a leadership role, particularly as it relates to concussions, I am creating a new department of player safety.”  GaryBettman announcing Brendan Shanahan’s new role in June of 2011.
"We've been very proactive on player safety.  I know there are more concussions being reported, but that in part is a function of the fact that we're doing a much better job of reporting, diagnosing and treating. When you think about it, the education process that the league is going to and the players have changed the culture so that players are more willing to admit they've had a concussion and get treated. And I think that's all very important. We've been at this since '97. We were the first sports league to do baseline testing, the first sports league to have protocols for diagnosis to return to play. We have the quiet room protocol, which nobody has done. We've changed rules on more than one occasion. We have a department of player safety."  Gary Bettman, January  2012
"We're talking about player safety and our greatest asset is our players, so we need to do what we can to protect them," Penguins GM Ray Shero told "That's why we have these meetings, to talk about these things. All these things are worthy for discussion, but we're not trying to revolutionize the game here."  NHL GM Meeting, March 2012.
"This is a great meeting," said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. "I think fans would be very impressed if they sat in the room and watched the time and care that goes into these discussions. The GMs take very seriously their role as custodians of the game."  NHL GM Meeting, March 2012
I’m sure a few more Google searches would turn up additional quotes and sound bites that would paint the NHL as champions of player health.  There is no doubt that they have implemented measures that encourage players to report symptoms and procedures that ensure players are not rushed back into action until fully cleared.  They have engaged in education designed to reduce illegal hits to the head and followed that up with suspensions to those who fail to absorb the lessons.  But why would the NHL and NHLPA continue to ignore fighting?
It’s pretty straight forward. 
  • A primary objective of the Department of Player Safety is to reduce illegal blows to the head and reduce concussions.  
  • The primary objective of players who drop the gloves is to punch their opponent in the head as often as possible to punish them or send a message to their team.   
How can league officials and team executives reconcile the obvious inconsistency with those two sentences?  It’s like the premise for a Monty Python skit.  “That’s not a blow to the head.  That’s just communicating my disagreement with his reckless skating in the area of my teammate”.  The quotes, from NHL executives and players alike, above provide evidence that they care about blows to the head.  But fighting continues without any response.

Fights for the first 6 days of the 2012-13 season have been frequent, a total of 54 or .65 fights per game.  It’s very early in this short season but this is an increase over last year which finished at .44 fights per game.  Even worse for the NHL’s image is the fact that 4 of those bouts came within mere seconds after the opening faceoff and 8 games have had multiple fights.  Did the NHL or NHLPA count the blows to the head from all those altercations?  Would any other professional league remain silent after multiple games on the opening weekend were marred by brawling?   What does the Department of Player Safety think about all those illegal hits to the head?  Remember, fighting is against the rules; therefore every punch is not legal.

The most recent demonstration of the NHL’s inaction on this issue - Ben Eager is out with a concussion due to a fight with Vancouver’s Zack Kassian.  One more statistic that the NHL can’t get back.


  1. You should stop. Fighting is necessary in this sport. Did you get bullied in school or something?

    1. If it's necessary then why is it illegal? Is slashing necessary? Is boarding necessary? Of course not. Fighting is illegal. If it were really necessary it would be legal.

  2. Fighting is necessary? You gotta be kidding. I've got 40+ posts on why it harms the image of the sport and statistics and data to back up why it hurts teams when they employ an enforcer or fight more than average. If the NHL thought it was necessary then why is there a Rule 46? It's penalized and therefore they have decided that it's not part of the game. If you have some valuable facts or arguments to add to the discussion then please provide us with your input.