January 19th was a great day for ice hockey in North America with the return of the NHL, and especially in my state, which celebrated our annual "Hockey Day in Minnesota." Today, two high school teams played outdoors on Lake Pokegema in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers mens' hockey team played North Dakota, and then the Minnesota Wild played their season opener - all on TV. Across the state, youth and high school teams were also playing the game they love. But, while it was a day to celebrate hockey, it is also a reminder of the dark cloud that hangs over the game: concussions.
Minnesota Wild player, Pierre Marc Bouchard, played his first game in 18 months since he suffered a concussion which caused him to miss all of last season. In my high school team's game today, a player on each team suffered a serious concussion. For our player, it was his second, and he will likely to be out for several weeks. Last season he missed the final month of the season with a concussion. The other player was hit on a legal play, at least according to the referees, but since it resulted in injury, a five minute major penalty was called.
I sent six hours watching games on TV today and two hours with the high school team I coach. I saw a lot of very skilled players at all levels and some very exciting play. I also saw lots of very physical play that injures players. I saw college players who were not wearing mouth guards. I saw a punch to the face in the college game that was ignored by the officials but replayed numerous times on the TV broadcast. In the pro game there is lots of crushing body checks, tripping, holding and of course the obligatory fight in the early part of the game that had nothing to do with the outcome of the game. In our game I saw lots of heavy body checking, blows to the head, boarding, checks from behind, elbowing, charging. You get the picture.
What I am seeing is that players continue to ignore the rule book, and are allowed to do so by the officials. I can understand that, at the professional level, a high stick to the face that draws blood is only a 4-minute minor penalty, but it sets the tone for the lower levels.
One could argue that the pros need different rules, but I wonder if that is good for hockey, where the rulebook is open to interpretation. I have heard some real crazy explanations from officials this year. It seems that the rules are really only recommendations and on ice officials enforce them - or not - at their discretion. Mostly not.
To that end, we know about concussions and the danger they pose to the long-term health of players, and yet, for some reason, the hockey community does not have the will or courage to do anything to prevent them. Technology, such as helmet sensors and other gadgets, are not the answer. The solution is really quite simple: stop allowing players to be hit on the head.
If we want to prevent most concussions, the rule book needs to be enforced at all amateur levels. Hockey is a tough, physical game and injuries, including concussions, will occur. But if the rules are enforced all of the time, not just some of the time, injuries will be reduced significantly.
It's time to play by the rules.