Humans do learn over time, believe it or not.
Long before hockey, the beaver hat was Canada's gift to the world. Unfortunately, it took decades before anyone connected the process of felt-making – which involved brushing the fur with a mercury compound – with the trembling, irritability, depression and loss of co-ordination that was common among "mad" hatters.
"Nine out of 10 doctors prefer Camels," the cigarette ads used to say, until the U.S. Surgeon General's report linked smoking to lung cancer in the early 1960s. Now 10 out of 10 doctors prefer that you stop.
Drinking and driving used to be the material for Monday morning jokes. A generation on, road checks, MADD campaigns and stark reality means you are a social pariah if you do.
And so it goes with hockey. This early fall of 2011 may well go down as the moment the Canadian game chose to step out of its own Alice-in-Wonderland world of make-believe and bring an end to the scourge of head hits – all head hits, including the accidental, including hits delivered by fists.
We are not there yet, but we are getting there – and that alone is cause for hope.
One gifted young man of 24, Sidney Crosby, may have almost accidentally changed the way the game is played as surely as Bobby Orr changed defence and Wayne Gretzky transformed offence.
On Jan. 1, 2011, Mr. Crosby suffered a shot to the head that some said was accidental and some deliberate – but which is no longer even the issue given how far the glacial world of hockey has travelled in the intervening nine months.
It is now accepted by all but the most reactionary of hockey people that all hits to the head are a bad thing. Just as science finally proved the dangers of smoking, science has convinced society that the human brain cannot be adequately protected by a helmet alone. The evidence is there for all to see: damaged brains of dead athletes, psychological damage to the living. The court of public opinion has decided.
On Friday, Hockey Canada's Rule 6.5 banning all hits to the head, accidental or not, went into force.
Parents are deeply concerned about head hits, just as minor hockey is gravely concerned that The Crosby Effect – already out nine months, unknown if he can return to his previous brilliance – is depressing registration. Officials are calling penalties on head hits, boarding and charging far more strictly than any time in memory, and some are speaking out for greater caution still.
"If I had a son who wasn't showing the potential to play at the highest levels," said Bruce Tennant, who has refereed in the Toronto area for more than 30 years, "I really don't think I'd let him play contact hockey."
At the National Hockey League level, there has been a near-sea change in attitude, the league finally moving from its previous laissez-faire attitude toward head shots to this fall's daily parade of players to the league disciplinary office.
Just as importantly, the league is connecting the obvious dots between hits to the head and fists to the head, with new senior vice-president of player safety Brendan Shanahan telling the CBC's Peter Mansbridge this week that "we have to also look at fighting" if the league is serious about doing something about blows to the head.
It is, one would think, simple logic. The NHL's stance on fighting, however, has long been its most illogical flaw. There is, in fact, no penalty whatsoever handed out at the NHL level for fisticuffs. Play stops – usually because two "designated" fighters have agreed to stage a fight – the fight takes place, the players are sent off to the penalty box with "majors," and play goes right back to five-on-five hockey. The fighters then table their "majors" at contract time exactly as skilled players table goals and assists.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has always been careful to say fighting "is a part of the game," but given his background and intelligence it is impossible to believe he truly thinks fighting serves any purpose apart from delighting those fans who prefer a roundhouse swing to a tic-tac-toe scoring play.
No one in hockey truly believes today's fighters have any effect on the outcome of the game. If Bobby Clarke, captain of the "Broad Street Bullies," and Harry Sinden, architect of the "Big, Bad Bruins" pooh-pooh the notion, how can anyone seriously entertain it?
And yet, consider where hockey comes from. In the 1930s, Tex Rickard, owner of the New York Americans, used to hire ambulances to park outside Madison Square Garden to attract fans. Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe used to say, "If you can't beat 'em in the alley – you can't beat 'em on the ice."
Mr. Bettman's best-known predecessor, Clarence Campbell, said back in 1975 that the key to NHL success was to "control the level of violence at an acceptable level." It is no longer acceptable. "Hockey is a game of violence," he said. "This will never change."
It has to change. And by all accounts, change is finally in the air.
Hockey Canada's Rule 6.5 – Head Contact
(a) In minor hockey and female hockey, a minor penalty shall be assessed to any player who accidentally
contacts an opponent in the head, face or neck with his stick or any part of the player's body or equipment.
(b) In minor hockey and female hockey, a double minor penalty or a major and a game misconduct penalty, at
the discretion of the referee and based on the degree of violence of impact, shall be assessed to any player who
intentionally contacts an opponent in the head, face or neck with her stick or any part of the player's body or
(c) In junior hockey and senior hockey, a minor and a misconduct penalty, or a major and a game misconduct
penalty, at the discretion of the referee based on the degree of violence of impact, shall be assessed to any
player who checks an opponent in the head in any manner.
(d) A major and a game misconduct penalty, or a match penalty, shall be assessed any player who injures an
opponent under this rule.
(e) A match penalty shall be assessed any player who deliberately attempts to injure or deliberately injures an
opponent under this rule.