The $2,500 fine that was doled out to Nik Antropov on Friday, for boarding T.J. Brennan on Thursday night, says a lot about the state of today’s NHL.
Years ago, that kind of hit would have resulted in a penalty (which it did), but no further action. However, with the concussion "epidemic" in the game today, the NHL is fearful of its brand. If bigger players hit smaller players and the head is involved, especially if the bigger player leaves his feet, there will be disciplinary action. In today’s NHL, the fine was warranted.
Ironically, the day after the fine was levied against Antropov came word that the Jets leading goal scorer, Evander Kane is now out of the lineup, indefinitely, with a concussion. Everyone believes something must be done, but what?
The NHL has a problem and despite the league’s best efforts, there isn’t anything that can be done. Nothing.
Take, as a for instance, “Black Tuesday.”
On Tuesday, Dec. 20, two New York Islanders, goalie Al Montoya and forward David Ullstrom, were taken from the ice with suspected concussions. In Ottawa, Jesse Winchester left the game with head trauma. In Pittsburgh, the home of Sidney Crosby and his fragile cranium, Chicago’s Marcus Kruger left with a game with a concussion after a vicious hit from Deryk Englelland.
One night, three games, four concussions. It has become an "epidemic."
In fact, if there was one story that has consumed the National Hockey League this season, it is the concussion story. Yes, the return of the Jets was wonderful and the death of three players in the off-season was tragic, but the one story that wouldn’t fade away –primarily because of the injury suffered by Sidney Crosby – was the concussion story.
And, not surprisingly, it became as big an issue as ever at the end of 2011. Especially after John-Michael Liles went down on Dec. 22 and Shea Weber suffered a concussion on Dec. 23.
Sadly, there is very little that can be done about it.
Now, naturally, the NHL was concerned the night Montoya, Ullstrom, Winchester and Kruger went down. Already, some of its biggest stars were on the sidelines nursing head injuries – Crosby, Jeff Skinner, Chris Pronger– so of course the league was worried. This past week, Flyers GM Paul Holmgren confirmed that there was absolutely no chance Pronger would be back this season while Crosby went back to his old chiropractor in hopes of finding some relief fior his symptoms.
Trouble was, there was absolutely nothing the NHL could have done in any of these cases. Engelland was suspended for his hit on Kruger, but Montoya was blasted by Winnipeg’s Kane who was pushed into the goalie, so it wasn’t Kane’s fault. Kane didn’t even have a discussion with the NHL’s vice-president of discipline, Brendan Shanahan.
Fact is, in the vast majority of major head trauma incidents this season, there was absolutely nothing the NHL could have done. Milan Michalek ran into his own teammate Claude Giroux ran into his own teammate. The list goes on.
The NHL has done everything it possibly can, doling out supplementary discipline on an almost daily basis and yet players are suffering concussions at an alarming rate.
Here are the problems:
1. The equipment. The players don’t wear padding anymore, they wear body armour. Their equipment is a weapon, or a series of weapons.
2. The athletes are too big and too fast. Fifty years ago, players averaged 5-foot-10, 175 pounds. Today, it’s 6-foot-2, 220-pounds. The ice surface is no bigger than t was then. Accidents will happen and the presence of these very big men will make those accidents more devastating.
3. The skates. Today’s hockey skates are a technological masterpiece. They are lighter, the blades are sharper and as a result, these giant players skate faster than ever. When the players run into each other, somebody gets hurt.
4. No red line. Players are flying through the neutral zone at a pace that has never been more frightening. If a player gets hit in the neutral zone now, there is always a chance a stretcher will be required.
5. The ice surface. With larger, faster players, the 200-foot X 85-foot enclosure might be too small. But there is one problem. If you watch a hockey game today, most of the fierce play occurs in a space from 10-feet to 30-feet in front of the net, between the circles. Even if there was a larger ice surface, it’s unlikely players would use the extra space.
It’s a tough game. Kane now out with concussion
The NHL can continue to pass new rules designed to avoid the inevitable. It can fine and suspend players and pay a full-time disciplinarian to try and “clean-up” the game. But I’m afraid none of it will work.
It’s the nature of the game – a fast, brutal dangerous game. And as long as large, tough, fearless, fast-skating, highly-paid entertainers are asked to do what’s necessary to play in the NHL — with the loss of multi-million contracts for those who don’t play aggressively — there will be serious head injuries.
And there is nothing – nothing! — that the league can do about it.