Few things bother died-in-the-wool hockey people more than when busybodies such as governments and courts start meddling in the game. For the most part, old-time hockey guys think the game does just a marvelous job of policing itself, so the pointy-heads really don’t need to be sticking their noses into the business of hockey.
That’s why the alarm bells must be sounding fairly loudly these days. The concussion lawsuits, or the potential for them, are piling up. And a report by TSN that the state of Washington is looking into the way junior hockey players are treated cannot be good news for the hockey establishment.
When it comes to concussions, what started as a few renegades could be pointing toward some sort of class-action lawsuit along the lines of the ones the NFL faced that resulted in a $765 million settlement last summer. The NHL saw this one coming and has prepared accordingly and will be armed with the evidence that it has worked with its players’ association on concussion protocol for much longer than the NFL did with its players. And there is no conclusive evidence, at least yet, that those holding the levers of power in hockey knew of the health risks posed by concussions and deliberately kept that information from the players.
But there’s this little fighting and violence thing. Yes, the league technically has penalties for fighting and violence, but it would be interesting to see those in power in hockey try to convince a judge or jury that fighting and going beyond the bounds of the rulebook are not encouraged in the game.
And this is where the wheels of justice may end up changing the face of the NHL. If you left it to the powers that be, fighting in the NHL would never be eliminated. There are too many hockey people who believe it has a place in the game. And believe it or not, their opinions are respected by your trusty correspondent. Not agreed with, but respected. And the league has proved over the years that rather than abolish fighting, the best thing to do is to continue to fabricate more rules to govern it. Take a look at the NHL rulebook. Fighting rules take up five pages, more than any other aspect of the game.
The league will do anything but take the drastic step of eliminating it from the game for good. That is, unless the prospect of paying out millions of dollars forces it to rethink its strategy on this one. Nothing motivates change for NHL owners more than the prospect of losing money and they may finally come to the conclusion that fighting the good fight over fighting is no longer worth it.
It’s much the same case with unions in junior hockey. For years, junior operators have been able to pretty much dictate their own rules when it comes to compensation and the working conditions they provide. If a disgruntled coach wanted to bag-skate a bunch of teenagers in the wee hours of the morning after a long bus ride because he didn't like the way they played, there wasn't much preventing him from doing that. But now that more media seem to be taking up the cause and posing difficult questions, the leagues have begun to take notice. The biggest union in Canada has gotten involved and, as we’ve seen with Washington State, the lawmakers are taking a look at it.
Again, there’s nothing that will motivate like the prospect of having to deal with a union or pay out a lump sum for past inequities. There are those, largely apologists who seem to think that major junior players have it just fine, who will point to the prospect of having to better compensate players and say it will kill the smaller junior hockey franchises in places such as Swift Current, Owen Sound and Rimouski. Well, the cold, hard truth is that if paying a reasonable wage to players doesn’t fit the business model in those places, perhaps some of those cities should be out of the major junior hockey business.
After all, does the Canadian Hockey League really need 60 teams when only a tiny fraction of those players are going on to play in professional leagues? Do the hockey fans in those small markets have the God-given right to watch major junior hockey without having their owners pay a competitive wage, and by extension without having to pay more for their tickets?
These are the kinds of questions we’re pondering as hockey gets dragged into the 21st century. And if others, such as courts and governments, end up providing the answers, well the game should have a pretty good idea where the finger of blame should be pointed.