For a few years, Carolina left winger Jeff Skinner has been one of the game’s more marketable up-and-coming players – a photogenic, well-spoken young man whose on-ice skills can be a difference maker.
That is, when he’s well enough to play the game. Unfortunately for Skinner, he’s involved in a game where headshots are still far too acceptable, and athletes’ health far too negotiable. That’s one of the reasons why Skinner has lost parts of two of his four NHL seasons to concussion-related injuries – and now will miss parts of a third straight year for the same reason. The Hurricanes are poorer for it, the league is poorer for it – and Skinner is poorest for it, both now, as an athlete unable to perform, and later, as his cognitive abilities are threatened further into his lifetime.
In the two years Skinner has been healthy, he’s averaged 32 goals and nearly 59 points per season. But he lost 16 games to a head injury in his sophomore campaign, and another five games to a concussion in February of 2013. Now, he’s sidelined indefinitely with another concussion after this blatant headshot Sunday from Washington’s Matt Niskanen:
While there’s something to be said for players putting themselves in safe positions on the ice, it too often sounds exactly like victim blaming when players plead innocence as Niskanen did after the game:
"His back was to the net and I think he did a spin shot and he spun right into my elbow," Niskanen told CSN Washington. "I could feel it. His face hit me right in the elbow.”
His face hit me right in the elbow, said the player who elbowed another player in the face. His body hit me right in the car, said the man who hit a pedestrian with his automobile. Do we see how untoward this talk is, how it absolves players of virtually all responsibility for their own bodies?
Skinner comes from a smart family that’s acutely aware of the perils of concussions; they’re no doubt even more concerned for his wellbeing today than they were Sunday morning. And who wouldn’t be troubled if their 22-year old-son was dealing with his third head injury? There’s bad luck, and then there’s asking athletes to bear too much brunt of other athletes’ recklessness and hyper-aggression. The handsome amount of money they’re paid is no license to irreversibly decimate them as human beings.
Even if you don’t care about the human toll this takes and you’re strictly a selfish fan who cares only about your team’s performance, you have to be aware of what this cannibalistic attitude hockey has toward its talent base is doing to the chances you’ll celebrate a Stanley Cup championship. With rumors of NHL expansion, there will be fewer players like Skinner who can score you 30 goals or more each year; teams will acquire one or two players like him in any competitive cycle. But because there aren’t tougher fines and suspensions for head shots, teams will continue to ice less-than-ideal rosters and fans will pay big-league money to see American League call-ups while checking online to see who’s on long-term injury reserve. The Hurricanes were playoff long-shots to start the year, but without Skinner and center Jordan Staal, they're close to dead in the water before their season begins.
This isn’t to say there aren’t players who over time will prove to be injury-prone, nor that the sport will ever be risk-free. But the reckoning is here for hockey, and it has been for some time. No one can say with certainty what a reformed NHL that did more for its players' brains would look like, but if the game’s gatekeepers continue to allow the league to remain the same, the only thing we’ll know for sure is there’ll be more Jeff Skinners – potential Picassos allowed to paint for only a few years before their tools were snapped by less capable artists – still to come.