Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

How to break Neanderthals' grip on hockey?

If hockey is truly "a man's game," then why are the games brought to us by Cialis and Viagra?

Erectile dysfunction appears to have become to the modern National Hockey League what Imperial Esso's "Happy Motoring" once was to the Original Six - Viagra plastered to the rink boards, Cialis wink-wink ads filling every stop in play on the television, Levitra promising you'll be ready to play should the coach tap you on the shoulder …

This has been another terrible week for the "man's game." Despite unprecedented criticism of professional hockey's unwillingness to address a matter that is threatening its players, the situation continues unabated: New Jersey's Anton Volchenkov suspended three games for a head shot to Zach Boychuk of the Carolina Hurricanes; Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke (hockey's serial offender) suspended four games for leaving his feet in an attempt to crush the cranium of Columbus defenceman Fedor Tyutin from behind.

Story continues below advertisement

It was a week in which one elite player, Marc Savard, packed it in for the season due to concussion, a week in which rumours spread concerning the game's most elite player, Sidney Crosby, possibly losing the remainder of what should have been his greatest season to concussion.

And it was a week in which one sensible player, Boston's Andrew Ference, was attacked on Hockey Night in Canada for daring to say a head shot delivered by teammate Daniel Paillé on the Dallas Stars' Raymond Sawada was "a bad hit."

A wonderful week, indeed, to head into the CBC's Hockey Day in Canada, in which the national game will be sentimentalized, lionized, glorified and worshipped.

It is a great game, but it surely needs some work.

The problem is that head shots have become the global warming of hockey, a polarizing issue that pits the disbelievers against the believers, with no results to show for all the braying back and forth.

Hockey Night in Canada, with its vast array of old-school thinkers, has become Fox News. The mainstream media, with their editorials demanding action against head shots, have become Al Gore.

So nothing ever seems to get done.

Story continues below advertisement

The loudest shouting has come from the naysayers. Mike Milbury has groaned about the "pansification" of the game and dismissed those who disagree with him as "soccer moms." Don Cherry - who began his media career with Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em videos - blows a gasket over Ference speaking his mind, suggesting it breaks some imagined "code" of the sacred hockey dressing room.

The quieter voices are more numerous, but have gained little. The NHL did bring in a specific rule against blatant headhunting, but still lags far behind other team sports when it comes to offering protection for vulnerable brains.

For weeks the debate has been about what happened to Sidney Crosby's head, whether the concussive blow was delivered, perhaps by accident, by Washington's David Steckel during the New Year's Winter Classic or by intent when Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman crushed him into the boards a few days later.

No longer. Instead of looking back, the hockey world now looks ahead: When will Sidney Crosby come back? Will he come back at all this year?

He himself says he expects to, but can offer no date. "There's no timetable," he said on Thursday. "I hope I'm back."

So should the league. Crosby was in the midst of a seminal year. He was running away with the scoring race. He had just come off a 25-game scoring streak when the first blow landed at the Winter Classic. His only serious rival over the past few years, Alexander Ovechkin, had been reduced to star status from superstar - of which hockey now had only one.

Story continues below advertisement

While hockey is a team game and golf an individual sport, comparing Sidney Crosby's impact on hockey in 2010-11 is not that much of a stretch from Tiger Woods's impact on golf in the years leading up to his self-inflicted blow to his image. When Woods departed the golf scene for a significant time, the PGA went into freefall in terms of interest and TV viewership. The falloff would not be so dramatic if Crosby were lost for the season, but it would be significant. The Crosby-Ovechkin storyline had been compelling for years; that storyline is, for the moment, lost.

It is no stretch at all, however, to compare Crosby's concussion problems to those of earlier players such as Paul Kariya and Eric Lindros. Kariya, it will be recalled, was on the cusp of NHL superstardom when he was struck down. Lindros had reached NHL superstardom when he suffered the first of several concussions. Neither was ever to reach those heights again.

It could be, before all this is over, that Sidney Crosby's greatest contribution to the game will not be the Olympic gold-medal winning goal of a year ago, but his sad situation forcing the NHL - the braying naysayers included - to wake up to what hits to the head have done and are doing to hockey.

It's not a man's game at all.

It's a child's game.

And it has become dysfunctional.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.