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File photo: New York Islanders head coach Mike Milbury looks on during a game against the Los Angeles Kings at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. Glenn Cratty /Allsport (Glenn Cratty)
File photo: New York Islanders head coach Mike Milbury looks on during a game against the Los Angeles Kings at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. Glenn Cratty /Allsport (Glenn Cratty)

The Usual Suspects

Mike Milbury sees the light Add to ...

Hockey Night in Canada analyst Mike Milbury was once a staunch defender of laissez-faire hockey. Now, he says he's changed his tune about the dangers of hockey.

Milbury says the accumulation of evidence in the National Hockey League and in his own life became too great to ignore.

"You can't live in a vacuum," the former NHL player and executive says. "We have seen dramatic changes, and they've caused a ripple effect. I think the latest [projected]number is 100 concussions in the NHL this season. I've been all for letting it go, but when you see that, you have to sit back and rethink it."

Call it a recantation. Call it an enlightenment. Long-time Hockey Night in Canada viewers were taken aback on March 5 by his abrupt change of course. Colleague Pierre LeBrun said whimsically: "The wussification of Mike Milbury, never thought I'd see it."

Citing the number of concussions resulting from the league's fisticuffs, particularly the staged version, Milbury conceded: "The only reason we have fighting in the game is because we like it."

Over arguments from HNIC host Ron MacLean that deterrence works, Milbury snapped: "Don't tell me we police it, Ron … it's still hogwash."

Glenn Healy, HNIC analyst and Milbury's occasional verbal sparring partner, says he wasn't surprised by Milbury's flip-flop.

"He's very bright, he's not a cookie-cutter guy," Healy says. "Mike looks at things in his own light. So I wasn't surprised by it. He's still a traditionalist, but I don't think he cares how he's perceived."

Part of Milbury's concern about the cumulative effects of head shots stems from the experience of his own young sons in minor hockey. What they see on TV, they replicate at community rinks.

"I have 11- and 12-year-old boys," Milbury, 59, says. "Even at that level they're going at each other. I see some of the kids go underground when they play because they don't want to get wasted. At that age, their heads and necks are not developed. They're more susceptible to concussions and the after-effects, and, duh, does it take more than that? They should take hitting out till kids are in bantam."

At the NHL level, the 12-year NHL veteran sees a game with greater speed and fitter athletes than when he played or was general manager of the New York Islanders (1995-99).

"I played with guys who were painters or construction workers in the summer, because they had to make money," Milbury says. "Now, because of the money, these guys are fitness freaks, and the collisions are more violent. You can see the results that come, in part, from this. I talk to guys I played with and they're still a little wacky now from the hits they took. When I see these guys going down at the NHL level, you have to take a look."

Milbury is separating himself from the Don Cherry camp on the violence issue, and part of the rethink includes purging designated fighters. That represents a significant about-face from November of 1998, when Milbury complained that efforts to eliminate fighting would result in the "pansification" of the league. At the time, Cherry refused to echo the coined word, and after Milbury used it again in January of 2009, CBC bowed to pressure from gay rights groups by censoring Milbury.

"Some people submit that one in four concussions are from fights," Milbury says today. "If that's even in the ballpark, we have to look at it. If you're out there for four minutes a game and you have 25 majors, there's no place for you in the game. Grapes [Cherry]had a team [the Boston Bruins]that could fight, but they could play too. Detroit general manager Ken Holland told me, there are nights when our manhood is challenged, but my job is to win games, not fights. If these guys can't play in the playoffs, what's the point?"

Making the playing surface safer is also on Milbury's agenda.

"Why are stanchions still there between the benches?" he asks. "We haven't had a bench-clearing brawl since 1987. Get them out of there. They sell tickets for that area in some buildings, but I can't believe they're there to protect those tickets. I asked the NHL why they weren't taken down the day after [Zdeno]Chara's hit on [Max]Pacioretty, but they won't tell me."

Former NHLer Keith Primeau, whose career was ended by concussion issues in 2006 and who has only recently turned the corner in his recovery, says it's hard for hockey players to acknowledge change.

"It's the mentality we grew up with, the competitive spirit that makes it so hard to change for us," Primeau says. "People have to understand that it's not succumbing to something different. It's not to be feared. I understand that now."

Milbury insists he doesn't want to "wussify" the sport.

"It's never going to be completely safe," he says. "Even if it's no-touch there's still a stick and a puck out there. I'm not advocating hooking and holding, but the whole thing needs a thorough look. The new rules in 2004 were more a heated rush because of the lockout. I hope they take their time and get it right."

Nor is he going soft.

"I wear pink ties, my manhood is not challenged," Milbury says. "I have a hockey history that keeps me from losing sleep over this stuff."

 

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