SPORTS WATCH
Players Are Forcing Their Sports to Evolve, Over Safety Fears
by Gus Jarvis
Apr 19, 2012 | 969 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Which comes first, the integrity of the game or player safety?

It’s an ongoing question in professional sports these days and is not easily answered. Of course, most would say (or should say) player safety is first but the way things are playing out so far in the Stanley Cup playoffs, one would wonder if that’s true or not.

It’s been an absolutely crazy and intense start to this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, where fighting and penalties have grabbed the spotlight rather than the game’s best scorers or goaltenders. It’s been “old time hockey” straight out of Slap Shot with fistfights, dirty shots and extreme hatred.

According to a New York Times tally, going into last Monday’s set of games there were already 11 game-misconduct penalties during the first five days of the playoffs (there were six in the entire 2011 postseason) and whopping 724 penalty minutes. Four players have been suspended and in the eight first-round playoff matchups, there have been fights in five.

Call me a pro-gladiator thug or just a dumbass, but I must admit I’ve been glued to these intense games. The Flyers-Penguins game on Sunday in Philadelphia was as good as playoff hockey gets. It was intense and it was full of cheap shots and fights. It was also full of great scoring. It was a great hockey game all around and entertaining as hell.

As for all the fighting, I am puzzled. Usually the fighting and cheap shots taper off after the regular season ends. Playoff hockey is too tight to give up penalty minutes for fights. And if there is a need for a fight, there better be a darn good reason.

On top of that notion, is the fact that the NHL, along with other sports, is taking concussions and injuries to the head much more seriously. This season, after several players were forced to sit out because of head injuries, including Pittsburgh’s Sydney Crosby, the NHL has emphasized player safety. The league formed a player safety department and harsh suspensions were handed out during the first couple of months to curb hits to the head. For a while it seemed the emphasis on safety worked. During the regular season, the average number of fights per game was .49, the lowest in five years, according to The Times.

All of that progress was kicked aside when the playoffs started. Now, the average fights per game is .84. Perhaps what’s even more interesting is that some of the angriest fighting that went on during Sunday’s game in Philadelphia involved Crosby himself. He’s a guy who’s not supposed to be taking any shots to his head, yet he not only instigated fights on Sunday, he dropped the gloves himself. What gives?

“I thought it was great,” Flyers Coach Peter Laviolette told The Times. “A couple of the best players in the world dropping the gloves, going at it. In the end, that’s really playoff hockey, isn’t it?”

Well, usually it's the team’s enforcer that's out on the ice dropping the gloves and not the injury-prone Sydney Crosby, but hey, why not, I guess? I’m not sure the Pittsburgh coaches feel the same way about that one. Others didn’t quite see the upside of all the fighting.

“In all my years of watching the NHL, I’ve never seen a first round with this many shenanigans and problems for the league,” Neil Smith, a former general manager of the Rangers, said.

I think what Smith is alluding to here is that the league is trying to do its best with curbing head injuries, and the measures it has taken this year aren’t quite working. I don’t know if the NHL is truly worried about its players’ health or worried about future lawsuits by players with long-term injuries, but at some point the league is going to have to find measures that work to keep head injuries down – that may mean an end to fighting in hockey.

While many believe fighting in hockey should have been outlawed decades ago, there are many, including I’d say, most players, who think fighting has an important place in the game. I tend to agree but that’s just my opinion. I’m a wannabe gladiator thug.

Those who believe that fighting belongs in hockey often say that fighting regulates the game within itself. It keeps everyone in check and playing the way they should be. If fighting is so important for hockey, then, players who believe this should somehow police themselves and not fight so much. If players continue on in this fashion, the league will be forced to outlaw fighting with harsh(er) penalties. Players should now consider fighting a privilege they could lose if they don’t settle down a bit.

Sounds twisted, right? Honestly, after last week’s fighting action, I think it’s the path forward for NHL officials.

Stepping back and taking a look at the big picture of professional sports in general, watching the NHL and NFL combat player head injuries is somewhat funny and ironic. On the one hand, the NHL handed out suspensions for hits to the head but somehow can’t get rid fighting because it’s integral to the game. On the other hand, the NFL continues to reshape its game to protect its players, yet underneath it all coaches are putting bounties out to injure opposing players.

In both cases, if players want to keep the game as it’s meant to be played, the players should take it onto themselves to play the game as it’s meant to be played. Hockey players don’t need to fight every five minutes. It should happen only once in a while when needed.

If bounties really were set to injure players, then the Saints were stupid and they may have inadvertently threatened the integrity of the game of football. Now the NFL may be looking to get rid of kickoffs altogether. Wouldn’t that suck?

Somehow players need to find a way to play without injuring each other. If they can’t find a way, the games will have to change. And if that continues, at some point, the games won’t be the games we thought we were watching.

gjarvis@watchnewspapers.com or @gusgusj
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