Monday, December 19, 2011

It’s time for the NHL to change!

The National Hockey League’s 2011-12 season will hit its home stretch in the next month or so. Spring will bring the Stanley Cup playoffs, the best time for hockey fans. However, the current “times” have been anything but the best of times for the Lords of the Rink.

Hockey fans remember 2011 as the year Minnesota Wild defenseman Derek Boogaard, Winnipeg center Rick Rypien and the recently retired Wade Belak all died tragically – Boogaard from a drug overdose, Rypien and Belak both committed suicide. Boogaard, Rypien and Belak were all NHL enforcers, players paid to fight. Their deaths are all connected to the sport they played as professionals.

Hockey’s marquee player Sidney Crosby missed playing hockey ten and a half months this year after suffering back-to-back concussions in games in early January. Crosby returned in mid-November, played eight games and is again forced to the sidelines suffering from what Crosby has called post-concussion syndrome. Thursday night Philadelphia Flyers captain Chris Pronger, a hockey player who represented Canada in the last four Olympic Games and will one day be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, had his 2011-12 season end as a direct result of a concussion. Its likely Pronger will never play hockey again.

Is it time for the NHL to change? Is it time for the “physicality” of hockey that National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman embraced two short weeks ago as “something our fans love” to undergo a fundamental change?

In an editorial published Monday, the Canadian Medical Journal interim editor-in-chief Dr. Rajendra Kale suggested it was time for hockey to change:

“Simultaneously, I was appalled by the disgraceful and uncivilized practice of fighting and causing intentional head trauma,” the neurologist said in an interview from Ottawa published by the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s national newspapers.

“It doesn't seem to fit in ... I almost thought that these were two different games being played,” said Kale, who moved to Canada from London more than three years ago.
Ken Dryden, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, former Toronto Maple Leafs’ President and a former member of Canada’s Parliament, in an op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail, called for Gary Bettman to make changes to how hockey is played, while recognizing just how tough Gary Bettman’s job is.

“In the U.S., Mr. Bettman has to try to make hockey matter for more than just an intensely dedicated minority, and beyond the north and northeast. For Americans, it's Major League Baseball and the National Football League first, then the National Basketball Association, and then … the NHL. The result is a perpetual struggle to matter,” said Dryden.

“This means having teams in parts of the U.S. where the main aim has to be simple survival. Ask any chief executive officer what he or she would do if one-quarter of his or her stores were dragging down the others.

“The answer: Close them and focus on the business's strengths. But Mr. Bettman can't do that.

“I've disagreed with him at times, but I've found him right far more often than wrong. Of all the NHL presidents or commissioners I've seen, as a player, an administrator and a fan, Gary Bettman is easily the best.

“Today, though, he faces a bigger challenge: head injuries. He has seen the dangerous mess of the past few years, with the premature deaths of former players, suicides and concussions that have ended or shortened careers. Now, there's the grave uncertainty over the future of his league's biggest star, Sidney Crosby.

“All through it, I was sure there would come a point where Mr. Bettman would say, “Enough.” He would intervene on the issue of head injuries as forcibly as he has on franchise and collective-bargaining matters. Instead, he has left it to others – first to Colin Campbell, an NHL executive formerly in charge of player safety, and now to former star player Brendan Shanahan.”

Dryden “hits the nail on the head” in looking at the problem and what is being done. While the NHL has put the right person in place in trying to deal with the violence of the sport (Shanahan), given how the sport is viewed in the United States, it might be impossible to change the way the game is played.

Does Brendan Shanahan have the right pedigree to move the help move hockey forward? During his hockey career Shanahan was a member of three Stanley Cup winning teams, part of the 2002 Canadian team that won the gold medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics and the Canadian team that won the 1994 World Championship. He is the only NHL player to have scored more than 600 goals and collected more than 2,000 penalty minutes. Shanahan currently works in the NHL office as the league's vice president of hockey and business operations. He has the right background!

The question that needs to be asked is this: Is having the right person in place enough to make the changes to the sport, especially when you consider how serious those changes would impact the sport?

Sidney Crosby is the one athlete who this sport can’t lose. If LeBron James never plays basketball again, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Dwayne Wade can each fill in. Peyton Manning, who will miss the 2011 NFL season, was the NFL’s biggest and most important player before the start of the current season. Tim Tebow, Aaron Rogers, Tom Brady and several other players make it clear no one player is bigger than the game itself. Ryan Braun, one of baseball brightest stars, is facing a suspension after testing positive for the use of a performance-enhancement drug and baseball hasn’t missed a beat. The National Hockey League cannot afford to lose Sidney Crosby and its clear Sidney Crosby’s hockey career is one hit to his head away from ending.

Twenty-three of the NHL’s current 30 teams are based in the United States. Canadians will forever love the frozen sport, but it’s the American population where the league, as Ken Dryden noted, faces its biggest challenge. Ask the average Canadian hockey fan what style of hockey they believe is best and they’ll tell you the international game. In the Olympics, the World Junior Hockey Championships and in college hockey – one fight and you’re handed a game suspension. In the National Hockey League, you’re given a five minute fighting penalty and allowed to return to the game.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at a 2007 press conference broadcast on CBC Sports in Canada, was asked about fighting and the NHL: “Fighting has always had a role in the game...from a player safety standpoint, what happens in fighting is something we need to look at just as we need to look at hits to the head. But we're not looking to have a debate on whether fighting is good or bad or should be part of the game.”

Ask the families of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak how they feel about fighting in hockey today.

Hockey is a wonderful sport. It is the fastest game on two feet. Removing body-checking completely from hockey will never take place. Hockey without any body-checking is a sports event no one will watch. It isn’t entertaining.

Banning fighting and ending hits to the head must take place. The NHL must put an end to fighting. If a player fights in an NHL game, he should receive a match penalty (suspended for that game), a second fight in a game he should be suspended for two games. If a player hits a player to his opponents head, that player should immediately receive a two game suspension. That suspension should double each time.
The player who receives the penalty should also lose the equivalent of whatever they were going to be paid to play in that game.

There are other changes that must be made to hockey, but this is a good place to start building the future of hockey. The game as it is being played today – players are dying, careers are ending prematurely. It’s time for Gary Bettman and the Lords of the Rink to step up and to do what’s right.

For Sports Business News, this is Howard Bloom

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