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Hockey Should Always Strive to Make Safety a Focus

Although the status quo in hockey is fiercely protected by the game’s gatekeepers, progressive-minded rules can be adopted to make the product better. We should always be interested in making the game safer and better, writes Adam Proteau.
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So, I’m watching NHL games on the TV earlier this week, and two things jump out to me: there are no catastrophic eye injuries anymore, and nobody gets tackled from behind and/or pushed into the end boards in a chase for an icing call.

It took next to no time for players – who almost always wore visors in leagues before they made it to the NHL – to adjust to visors. But there also was no shortage of fans and analysts who decried the NHL’s decision to make visors mandatory. Remember that poutrage (a new portmanteau, combining pouting and outrage) they showed? “Oh, the game will change if we give players eye protection!”, they argued, clutching their pearls. “It’ll cause a great rise in stick-swinging incidents!”

Well, here we are, with the visor rule grandfathered into the league in 2013, and guess what? Eight years later, you don’t see any eye injuries anymore. 

Sure, there may be the odd freak injury if a stick comes up on a player and goes under his visor, but those types of plays are rare. Far more often, the visor prevents major injuries. And nothing the anti-visor crowd said came true. There was no detrimental effect caused by visors. There was not an epidemic of stick-swinging incidents. Visors didn’t fog up when players went on the ice wearing them. They did what they were supposed to do. They protected NHLers – the biggest asset a team can have – and they made the game safer.

And that brings us to icing races. Again, in 2013, the NHL moved to curtail extreme injuries by implementing a different icing rule. Rather than having players race at top speed down the ice and into the end boards. the league chose to use a hybrid icing rule that made the race to the faceoff dots to decide whether a puck was iced or not. The NHL already had a history of incidents where players suffering major injuries in icing races – Kurtis Foster had his femur broken; Pat Peake’s heel was destroyed; and Joni Pitkanen’s career was ended when he broke his heel – and losing assets to icing races may seem like a macho thing to do. But teams put so much money into players these days, they insist on getting them as much protection as they can. And nobody should lose their livelihood on a puck race.

This is why the hybrid icing rule was implemented, and guess what? – we’re getting on a theme here – there have been no more ugly incidents on icing chases. The rule worked. The game changed, but not in any fundamental way. Things are safer out there now.

All of this is to remind you, in case you’ve forgotten, that although the status quo in hockey is fiercely protected by the game’s gatekeepers, progressive-minded rules can be adopted to make the product better. You have to make cogent, convincing arguments to support new rules, but given that the NHL always claims to have players’ best interests at heart, you can make headway in the rulebook and find ways to make the league as safe as possible.

Visors and hybrid icing aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I understand why some retired NHLers don’t like those rules. They want the game to be a robust physical experience, and they don’t like seeing a bunch of newbies coming into the league and being coddled by the rulebook.

That’s a shame, because both rules aren’t going anywhere. The NHL rulebook is a fluid entity, and there almost assuredly will be issues that pop up out of nowhere down the line. But you don’t give up on rules that clearly have done their job.

Players adjusted to visors, and they adjusted to hybrid icing. Let this be a lesson to all you progressive-minded hockey fans out there: speaking up and speaking out about flaws in the NHL’s system can lead to victories and an improved entertainment product for both the audience and for athletes/performers. People can make a difference by voicing their concerns.

It’s true NHL players all understand there are no guarantees of total safety once they jump over the boards. In a chaotic game, you never know when an errant (or intentional) elbow or an accidental knee in the head can concuss a player and jeopardize his career. We can’t control everything that happens on the ice. But we should always be interested in making the game safer and better.

Hockey is still capable of producing gruesome injuries. But we can do our best to limit them. The hybrid icing and visor debates have proven critics, fans and analysts can impact a sport, and impact it for the better.

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