It’s purely a coincidence that the WREN began running a two-part series about the 1899 Stanley Cup injury fiasco when it was reported that Boston’s Zdeno Chara rode Montréal’s Max Pacioretty into a stanchion during an NHL game on March 8, resulting in the Canadien player suffering a concussion and a fractured vertebrae. Although a coincidence, the Heritage Highlights series provides an example that hockey at its highest level has changed little over the past 112 years in terms of the response to on-ice injuries by officials.
As in the March 8 incident, Winnipeg Victorias player Tony Gingras was the victim of a vicious attack and the failure by officials to award a penalty in keeping with the infraction. During the February 18, 1899, game, Gingras was slashed behind the right knee by Montréal’s Bob McDougall. Gingras dropped to the ice in agony and, being short a player, the Winnipeg squad was unable to continue its bid to regain the Stanley Cup it had first won in 1896. It was the equivalent of the Pittsburgh Penguins losing their star player, Sidney Crosby, due to an on-ice incident. Pardon me. That has already happened.
In the aftermath of the crippling slash, Winnipeg team officials demanded a game misconduct be given to McDougall. Instead, referee Bill Findlay handed-out a minor penalty to McDougall, and the trustees of the Stanley Cup (the equivalent to today’s NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and company) refused to overturn Findlay’s ruling and have the series replayed at a later date.
Findlay examined Gingras and said he only saw a one-inch long break in the skin that wasn’t deep. Regardless of Findlay’s belief, Gingras was injured so severely that he was unable to continue even if he wanted to. In protest of Findlay’s assessment of only a minor penalty, the Victorias walked off the ice. Findlay then declared that the Vics had forfeited the Stanley Cup to the Montréal team.
In the wake of the brutal hit to Pacioretty, the referee assessed Chara minor and major penalties and a game misconduct. But Canadiens’ officials demanded Chara receive a multiple-game suspension. The matter was taken up by the NHL brain trust who — as was the case in 1899 — pronounced the penalties given as appropriate and there would be no additional sanctions. Although the injury was “horrific,” the league was correct in not suspending Chara, he added.
The cavalier manner in which Bettman dismissed the need for further sanctions, provoked an immediate outcry. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper saw the hit as an outrage, asking the league to do something about the serious injuries plaguing the game. Air Canada, a sponsor of the NHL, was similarly outraged, sending a strongly worded letter to Bettman in which the company threatened to withdraw its sponsorship if Chara wasn’t suspended. Bettman’s response was to suggest that NHL clubs could find another air carrier if Air Canada wasn’t satisfied with its present arrangement.
On the other hand, Tim Hortons, Scotiabank and Molson Coors were less adamant, and only asked the league to take steps to improve on-ice safety.
Fans cried out for a police investigation into the hit, a la former Boston Bruins player Marty McSorley being convicted of assault with a weapon after he used his stick to bash Vancouver player Donald Brashear in the head in 2000. The Montréal police have obliged, although it is unlikely such an investigation will result in criminal charges being laid against Chara.
That there is a problem with the NHL’s on-ice product is self-evident. When a marquee player such as Crosby is unable to play due to a concussion, the league should take note, especially when similar injuries continue to occur. Fans are in the stands to watch Crosby score goals, not to witness brutal attacks that drop players of his calibre out of a team’s line-up for months on end.
The league should also take note of Liberal MP and hockey legend Ken Dryden’s commentary in the March 12 Globe and Mail, which included the line, “How could we be so stupid?”
When a brain surrounded by spinal fluid and encased in a skull receives a hit, it richocettes “back and forth, colliding with the sides of the skull, like a superball in a squash court,” Dryden wrote. He added that the brain then begins to bleed and “neurons and pathways we use to to think, learn and remember — get damaged.”
Dryden said the game has changed significantly since it was first played indoors in 1875 in Montréal — the players have become significantly bigger, faster and stronger. He said the abilities of today’s player “is almost unrecognizable from hockey 50 years ago, let alone 100.”
He related the story of Bob Probert, whose ability to fight got him into the NHL. As the years progressed, Probert developed into a more all-around player, but he still fought at least 240 times during his career. He died last year at 45. His wife reported that prior to his death, he forgot things and quickly lost his temper. In a post-mortem examination by Boston University’s School of medicine, Probert was found to have chronic-traumatic-encephalopathy cells in his brain, a sign of damage to the organ.
The dangers of concussions are becoming more widely known as report after report is released, including those involving minor league players who have experienced their share of severe headaches, dizziness and memory loss. The brain remains a delicate organ that needs to be nurtured rather than slammed into mush and eventual oblivion.
Impose more stringent rules and penalties on head contact in the NHL. Concussions caused by accidents will still periodically occur — it’s a fast game played on a hard ice surface — but an end will come to the intentional head-hunting with one player smashing another player’s head into the boards with brain-jarring force.
Canadians still eagerly watch Olympic hockey, cheering on our national team with wild enthusiasm, especially during gold medal matches. The International Ice Hockey Federation has specific rules and severe punishments against hits to the head, which have not detracted from the on-ice product. In fact, one can confidently argue that the game played by NHLers at the international level is faster and better, and body checks are not banned — they just have to be clean — and fighting, another source of brain damage, is a rarity.
Yet. there are still some who argue that fighting and “rock ’em, sock ’em” injury-causing hits are part of the game. Maybe that was the general belief in the past, but now we should know better,
As Dryden wrote, “It is time to stop being stupid.”