BY GUS KATSAROS
Matt Ridley, in his book Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, related the frequency of soccer players heading the ball in a season/career, to potential repercussions later in life.
A soccer player can head a ball, on average, more than 80 times a season. Over the course of a footballer’s career, the impact in the development of Alzheimer’s disease is exponential. That’s a 450-gram leather orb in controlled situations.
Patrice Bergeron received the equivalent of how many soccer balls to the head? Or Simon Gagne after his third concussion this season? Keith Primeau or Jason Allison? Or the brothers Lindros, Eric and Brett?
Headshots in today’s era of helmets and improved player protection at every level are more prevalent, compared to even a generation ago.
Former goaltender and NHL Hall of Fame member Ed Giacomin recently reflected on the changes in the game from his day – the late ’60s and early ’70s.
“There’s less respect than when I played,” Giacomin said. “Plays (along the boards) are more violent and (players) are bigger. Guys are going in corners and behind the net and players are charging and leaving their feet. The guys are so big and the equipment they use now makes them even bigger. If fans could see what I wore in those days…”
Giacomin, now 68 years young, is on the cusp of prime years when hints of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease appear. In Giacomin’s era, however, it wasn’t the headshots that worried him: It was errant pucks.
Giacomin, known for his roaming, puck-playing ways, was one of the last goaltenders to don a mask (he first wore one in 1970-71). The same season Giacomin put on face protection he was beaten by Bobby Hull – whose boomer probably terrorized more goalies than any other shot in NHL history – for the Golden Jet’s 500th career NHL goal.
“I always preferred a slapshot because you knew where it was going and we could protect ourselves by reacting,” Giacomin said. “With a floater, we didn’t react, or we overreacted and it went by us. A slapshot came straight and we were able to react to where we expected it to go. We knew how to protect ourselves by reacting.”
And if he was screened?
“We would peak around the defenseman to get a feel for where the puck was and reacted as best we could.”
Being maskless made him vulnerable during games, but that wasn’t the prime time to worry.
“We were less concerned about that (pucks) during games,” Giacomin said. “In warm-ups and practice, pucks were flying around. We never knew when something was coming at us.”
He recalled several nail-biting moments and dwelled on the near-fatal incident involving former Boston Bruins goaltender, Ed Johnston. Hit in the temple by an errant puck in the warm-up on Halloween night in 1968, Johnston was hospitalized until December the same year.
“Goaltenders using a butterfly are going down and getting shots straight off the mask,” Giacomin said. “Young goaltenders drop to their knees and square themselves to shooters with no fear because of the mask. They should be taught to protect themselves.”
That’s because protective equipment doesn’t always do its job, as evidenced by the facial cut Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov suffered Feb. 17 after a puck broke the cage on his mask.
The amount and nature of headshots in today’s game are well documented, including a recent piece by The Hockey News’ own Adam Proteau. The risk to athletes’ futures, with the amount of punishment their bodies endure during their careers, is great.
Shots off the mask could have the same repercussions for goaltenders.
Gus Katsaros is a writer, fantasy hockey expert and amateur scout for McKeen’s Hockey Prospects.