I love ice hockey.
I loved it when my Dad first taught me to skate and enrolled me in Syracuse’s new Peewee program, where skaters became forwards, almost-skaters became defensemen, and non-skaters became goalies. I loved it for the AHL team that came to town and actually played right there on our ice. I loved it for the occasional pond-game or back-yard-rink scrum that had to suffice after my Peewee career ended.
I love it still for the chance to play again, short on breath and skill, long on reminiscence.
I don’t love it for the predictable, avoidable injuries, and especially the fighting — the blood and teeth on the ice from a puck or a stick or a fist. In this, I follow my Dad, who honored hockey’s speed and grace, and accepted clean physical contact, but hated the violence and injuries that made monsters of players and fans.
It has been an oddity of ice hockey (and baseball too) that boys got protection of their second-most-vital body part — their head — well before the professionals did. But then, professionals were presumed sensible enough to protect themselves, a lapse of judgment the NHL rectified only in 1979, when it mandated helmet use.
A helmet can mitigate the worst of a collision or a speeding puck, but it can’t protect a player’s face, a point the NHL has weakly acknowledged, encouraging plastic eye-shields that still are no protection against a rising puck.
But the league has done nothing to mandate the most obvious and effective face-protection — a steel-mesh cage that a puck or a fist cannot penetrate and that every youth player up to age 18, and every college player regardless of age, has long been required to wear.
Some argue that a cage limits vision, a claim without serious merit now that virtually every player who is in the NHL learned to play, and reached the highest level of proficiency, wearing a cage.
Making players wear a cage, besides protecting them, would confer another benefit — the reduction, if not elimination, of fighting. No one is going to throw a punch that can only shred his knuckles and amuse his opponent.
Two other equipment modifications would seal the deal: chin-straps that actually secure the helmet (the current under-the-chin strap dangles like an unbuckled seat-belt); and a mechanism that would delay the lightning-fast, pre-fight dropping of the gloves (perhaps a Velcro-fastened inner strap).
While we’re at it, we should tap the advances in materials-science that have, among others, created the composition hockey stick (and, incidentally, raised shot-speeds that make player-protection all the more urgent). Those same advances should also allow us to replace metal goal-pipes and hardwood side-boards with something firm but forgiving.
Interestingly, the NHL does have a Department of Player Safety, which is developing a record of serious, though myopic, enforcement. The Department’s focus on prosecuting egregious fouls can weaken a prime excuse for fighting — I was just protecting my teammate — but its task is only begun. It must deal just as forcefully with the fighting itself, and it must demand the adoption of better material protection for players.
I went to a hockey game and the advances in player-protection, plus a serious commitment to violence-prevention, are indeed commendable might sound a little more precious than I went to a hockey game and a fight broke out, but it would be nice to be able to say.