What happened in Pittsburgh last Saturday has left yet another black mark on the great game of hockey. Both Shawn Thornton’s attack on Brooks Orpik and James Neal’s knee to Brad Marchand’s head were dirty plays which crossed the clear lines of respect all hockey players are supposed to follow, the “unwritten code” we all so often speaks of. (In case you haven’t seen it, click HERE for a video including both incidents)
It is very easy for the anti-fighting fans of hockey to twist Saturday night’s Thornton-Oprik incident into another example of fighting not having a place in the NHL. The problem is that the incident was not a fight: it was an assault. It is unrealistic to imply that this would not have happened if fighting was banned in the NHL. You can ban fights, but you can’t ban the thirst for revenge . Thornton was on a mission to avenge the concussed Loui Eriksson after he was hit by Orpik in the opening minute of the game. One could counter-argue that if Orpik had fought Thornton when he first challenged him, the incident could have just as easily been avoided. But the reality is that Orpik had no obligation to fight, and that’s where it should have ended. Thornton’s actions of slew-footing and punching a defenseless Orpik were unnecessary and uncalled for, and it’s very likely that the NHL department of player safety throws the book at him. He crossed a moral line, and there is no room for that in hockey. However, this should not be come a hill for anti-fighting groups to plant their flag. This was more about a player crossing the line than fighting.
What is being lost in all of this, most likely due to the images of Orpik being stretched off the ice, is the incredibly vicious knee to Marchand’s head, only second’s before Thornton’s attack. Neal, who has been under fire for dirty hits a few times in recent memory (such as these two incidents in the same game), had more than enough time to get out of the way and avoid hitting Marchand. No such attempt was made, and it’s clear in the replay that he angled his leg ever so slightly towards Marchand. The more I look at the video, the harder it is for me to come up with any defense for his heinous acts. A 5-game suspension for such an act I feel is getting off easy. For Neal to have such a lack of respect for a fellow player is far more disturbing than and fight I’ve seen this year.
We hope that what happened in that game will never happen again, but this won’t be aided simply by banning fighting in the NHL. Both of these incidents relate more to a lack of respect between players, something that rules simply can’t change. In a season that has been plagued by blatant head shots and other incidents which involved an intent to injure, it is the culture of the NHL players that needs to change, not the rule book. Respect for one another is the key to improving the poisoned and tainted culture of the NHL.
Here’s a link to an article I wrote for my University’s paper, The Concordian. Feel free to comment!
Many opinions have been expressed over the years on the issue of visors in the NHL. It seems to be the type of topic that comes and goes, and often gets rekindled when a player gets an eye injury from a puck to the face or a high stick. On February 14th, it was announced that the Vancouver Canucks had ‘shut down’ Manny Malhotra for the season, due to the lingering effects of an eye injury from a few seasons ago. Unfortunately, the injury to Malhotra’s eye could potentially have been avoided if he had been wearing a visor. In recent years, players such as Malhotra, Ian Laperriere and Chris Pronger have all suffered eye injuries that have threatened their careers.
Unfortunately, the pattern for addressing safety issues in the NHL is that it takes a star player getting injured for the issue to be taken seriously. For concussions, it took Sidney Crosby being out of the game for a significant amount of time for it to be addressed. More recently, Erik Karlsson had his Achilles’ tendon severed by a skate, an injury that may have been prevented (or at least less severe) if he had been wearing cut-resistant socks. Now the issue of cut-resistant socks being made mandatory is being discussed around the hockey world. Both of these topics had been brought up by people outside of the NHL before these players had been injured. I fear that the discussion of visors will only be taken seriously by the league if one of the “visorless” stars (such as Martin St. Louis, Ryan Getzlaf, Eric Staal or Joe Thornton) sustains a serious eye injury.
All the pieces are in place for the use of visors to be “grandfathered” (made mandatory for future players, yet still optional to current players) into the league, much like helmets in the late 1970s. I never had the chance to watch the hockey of the 60s and 70s. However, I have seen the videos of players like Guy Lafleur or Bobby Orr rushing up the ice with their hair flowing in the wind. Although incredibly unpopular with both fans and players to begin with, helmets started to be built with hockey in mind, and more and more players started to wear them. The use of helmets was only seriously considered after Bill Masterton died after hitting his head on the ice during a game in 1968. This is consistent with the current NHL pattern of issues being taken seriously only after a serious injury. Players were eventually forced to wear them in 1979, when they were grandfathered into the league. The last player to play helmetless was Craig MacTavish in the 1996-1997 season. I rarely hear players complaining about having to wear helmets these days. That is because it is simply not an issue anymore. The same goes for goaltender masks; there was a time when wearing one was optional, as crazy as that seems now.
In junior hockey, it is mandatory to wear visors; drafted players have all been wearing visors for their junior careers (if not in Junior then College, where the use of a cage is mandatory). These players have worn them for several years, and have thus become used to playing with them. Why give them the option to take it off once they get to the professional level? It is in the team’s best interest to protect their players; they are, after all, high value investments. If a player is injured, the team is still obligated to pay them.
The use of visors has been rising significantly in recent years. The Hockey News stated that last season, 69.4% of players were wearing visors, compared to roughly 28% in the 2001-2002 season. They also noted the very high amount of rookies wearing visors. Many people suggest that there is no need to make visors mandatory, because the players are starting to wear them anyways. On the other hand, if so many players are starting to wear them, what makes it so problematic to make it mandatory? Is it because players want to have the choice to wear them, instead of being told to wear them?
The use of visors is already mandatory in the Olympics and the American Hockey League. The NHL is one of the only leagues left that have not yet made visors mandatory. I think that the time is right for visors to be made mandatory, or at least to grandfather their use into the NHL. If so many young players are already wearing them, this should not be a big issue. It shouldn’t take a player losing an eye for the league to consider adding a piece of protective equipment. For a league that has already lost quite a few players over the years to injuries that could have potentially been prevented, it seems like a small price to pay for player safety.