Thursday, December 8, 2011

Fighting, Head Hits, and New Responsibilities

By Mike Chen

In a two-week span, the NHL faced a bevy of coaching firings and hirings and major realignment changes for next season. However, what should be the biggest piece of news is something that may not get the usual sports talk radio fans going. No, it has nothing to do with whether Dale Hunter will get the most out of Alexander Ovechkin, or if Bruce Boudreau will turn around the Anaheim Ducks like he did to the Washington Capitals next season. Nor does it have anything to do with how the to-be-determined playoff system will work best for next year's realignment.

The biggest, most important piece of news is that the late Derek Boogaard, at the tragically young age of 28, was facing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE — a cognitive degenerative disorder) when he accidentally overdosed on a mixture of painkillers and alcohol over the summer.

The findings by Boston University's research team showed that Boogaard's cognitive function, had he lived, would have spiraled downward into what they termed "middle-aged dementia." All of this came out as part of an extensive New York Times three-part story on the rise and fall of one of the NHL's most feared enforcers.

These days, head hits and concussions are dealt with as much scrutiny as any point in pro sports, be it hockey, football, or boxing. The medical technology is available to examine brains of recently deceased pro athletes and the findings have been shocking, though when you apply some sensible logic to it, it's not all that surprising. These are high-impact contact sports, and in some roles, the brain gets tossed around the skull more than others. High-profile situations, like Boogaard or former NFLer Dave Duerson, all shine a brighter spotlight on the situation.

The reaction from the hockey community has been mixed — the official word from the NHL is, not surprisingly, vague at best. Pundits across North America have lined up on both ends of the spectrum, with some saying that this is scientific proof that the game needs to do more to protect the players while others are saying that the players know exactly what they're getting into.

The proper answer, as always, is probably somewhere in the middle. Pro sports needs to understand what the long-term impact is on its core asset, the player. At the same time, players volunteer for this — no one is forcing them into it. The middle ground, then, is education, and a combination of journalism and science like the New York Times piece is the proper path for that.

However, here's the kicker: you can say all you want about whether or not the league changes its rules or whether hockey culture as a whole needs to be changed; the bottom line is that nothing will happen without the consent of the NHLPA constituency.

That's not to say that the NHLPA needs some sort of official referendum on head hits and/or fighting. But these are the guys who are actually out there taking the blows to the skull, and the majority of them still want to keep fighting in the game. There's been a gradual acceptance that A) concussions are scary, unpredictable things and B) targeted hits to the head are probably a bad thing over the long-term.

Deeper than that, though? An article like the New York Times' (which also includes former NHL enforcer Brantt Myhres speaking about some of his post-playing struggles) can be eye-opening to the public, but ultimately the players have to decide what's important to them. Do they want to enact a major change, one that may put jobs at risk for certain types of players? What's more important, the overall health and safety of the individual members or the solidarity of association jobs?

It's easy for the people on the outside to say that the dangers of fighting and head hits are now obvious. It's not their jobs on the line. It's not their competitive spirit — one that's taken a lifetime to groom and mold into the top 0.01% in the world — that's being challenged. The more this discussion invades the public consciousness, the more players will hear about it, and that will provide some sway into things. But ultimately, the decision has to come from the players about what they're willing to accept as part of their job and their lifestyle.

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