I was about 10 years old when I sat in Maple Leaf Gardens for the first time, beside my father, in the reds. The Detroit Red Wings were in town that wintery Saturday night, and even though blue was, and still is, my favourite colour, for some reason I became attached to the team from the motor city. I can still close my eyes and here the dull rumble of the crowd, and then an occasional roof-splitting roar when a Toronto goal was scored and the sighs when the Wings put one in the net. My father once threw me out of the living room when the two teams were in the Final and I was cheering for Detroit.
What impressed me most that first night was the speed at which the players moved, their stick handling and passing skills, and the accurate shots that bounced near or into the net.
So far as I know the size of the ice surface that was used in those far away days of hockey’s greatest years has not changed materially. What has, and dramatically, are both the number of NHL teams, from the original six to a figure I don’t even know, and the size of the players.
Back in the 1950’s the majority of players might have ranged between 5’8” and 5’10” in height and 160 – 175 pounds. In today’s league these then super athletes, many among the greatest in all sporting accomplishment, would be looked upon as midgets and would be rejected. It’s hard to believe that Henri Richard, who won 11 Stanley Cup rings, was 5’7” and160 pounds soaking wet and played for 20 years.
What has changed in hockey is that for the most part skill is no longer the prerequisite that it once was. When you have 10 men on the same relatively small ice surface, many of whom weigh over 225 pounds and stand 6’ 5” in their skates, you must by necessity sacrifice the passing and stick handling and instead get physical – there isn’t enough room on the ice for anything else. I know – this might be a bit extreme, but where I am going requires extreme.
I no longer watch hockey unless it is international play on the larger surface. That provides the opportunity for players to demonstrate that they can still use the old skills.
The point of all of this is the destruction that is being wrought on far too many hockey players, with no apparent response from the NHL hierarchy, which I suppose is not surprising when one considers who comprises this and the general lameness of their approach to the entire game.
The man who brought Canada a moment of great golden glory is presently gone – out to concussion; will he return? None of us knows. The most recent revelations about a former player suffering from a degenerative brain condition following repeated concussions should not just be alarming, but also should serve as scientific proof about the possible long-term consequences of head shots.
Consider the Lindros brothers, two physical giants, both with careers cut unnecessarily and prematurely short, both victims of concussion. Consider that millions of Canadian girls and boys play hockey, from coast to coast. Consider that our young men and young women have brought home World and Olympic gold medals in our national sport. Consider that all of us who are parents with children who play hockey can make known the way we feel about needless physical aggression, to our children, to their coaches, to the leagues in which they play and to the governing bodies of the sport. In The Globe and Mail sports section dated March 10, 2011, the front-page article headline reads: “Shock Waves reach Parliament Hill.” Aggressor receives “10-minute game misconduct, no further penalty.” This for what in civilian life would have been a criminal act, probably assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.
Hockey is a very physical game, but I suggest that being able to take a one or two minute shift and skate up and down the ice, passing, stick handling and taking the occasional shot on goal is far more physically demanding then jumping out onto the ice and 15 seconds later crushing an opponent head first into the boards.
It is time that real hockey fans start to express themselves in order to preserve the game, and our children, from the carnage that is happening weekly before our eyes.