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If the Helmets Only Fit, Part 1: Protecting the Assets by Brian Kennedy 

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If the Helmets Only Fit

Part One: Protecting the Assets

By Brian Kennedy

FEBRUARY 25, 2013 — Most businesses have a policy which says that their assests must be protected. At the simplest level, this means watching the door if you’re a bank or locking the shop tight if you’re an automotive repair facility. Higher-tech firms do things like guarding their information systems.

Executives are often driven to work, both as a courtesy and so that they can be productive on the road. Chauffers, at least some of them, are trained in evasive driving techniques and pursuit escape. Sounds like Bond-film stuff, but it’s true. The idea: to protect the brain at the top of the corporate chain.

For a professional sports team, the primary agent of action is the player, and anyone who is knocked out of a game, or a series of them, through injury, is a non-performing asset. He’s no good to the team, and in some ways, he might be a distraction to the players left in the lineup. That’s why a coach like Andy Murray used to force his Kings players who were out with injuries to show up super-early in the morning for their workouts or treatments and then be gone from the practice facility before the rest of the squad arrived.

Think of any business where danger lurks in the very atmosphere. Autoworkers wear safety glasses. Welders wear shields. Ironworkers strap onto beams. In every case (except maybe the welder, who simply couldn’t work without the protection), it might be that the encumbrance of safety equipment makes it slightly less efficient for the worker to do his or her job. But in every case, it’s also true that fewer days will be lost to injury, and thus less compensation will be paid out, than were the worker not wearing the gear.

So why is it that, in hockey, it’s entirely up to the player whether to protect himself?

Let’s ask this another way. Why are so many NHL hockey players getting concussions? The anwers always given are that the game is faster than ever, the players bigger, the equipment bigger and harder and easier to use to injure (speaking particularly of the shoulder and elbow pads). Occasionally said is that they got concussed in the old days, but that nobody knew what head injury was or how it should be treated, so players just shook it off and got back to the game as quickly as possible.

All of that is BS, and a distraction from the simple answer which anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of physics and a whisper of common sense can name: almost nobody in the NHL wears his helmet properly.

There. It’s that simple. The helmets flop around on the player’s heads, aided by chinstraps which hang down with a finger’s gap, or three or four. When the player is hit, the helmet flies back on his head, doing little to mitigate the effects of the impact. Go to any video sharing site and look for yourself at the hits shown there. If you find one which caused injury where a helmet is properly secured to a noggin, chinstrap tight, and the helmet does not move, then tweet me the link @growinguphockey.

This is the same reason why visors are so often ineffective (though they do prevent some measure of trauma to the face and eyes, admittedly). They are not in the place they are intended to be when the impact comes, because the helmet which they are screwed to moves when the head flies back. The natural reaction to a stick or puck coming to one’s face is to flinch, move the head back and out of the way. When that happens, the loose helmet moves, taking the visor with it.

If that’s right, then the answer appears simple? Get the league to fit the helmets individually and mandate chinstraps be tight, like the NFL does. (To only partial effect, but when you hit with your head, that’s not going to have a happy outcome. Fortunately, that’s not allowed in hockey.)

The thing is, despite numerous contract negotiations over the past couple of decades where the league could have mandated greater safety measures, they have never done so. One explanation for this is that the NHLPA would not go along with the idea, for instance, to mandate visors.

So if the players are not smart enough to protect themselves, and the league won’t push for change, then why won’t the management of the teams do it? After all, they are the ones who stand to lose when a Cam Fowler is out, or a Gabriel Landeskog. It is the team which suffers when a player at the bottom of the depth chart is moved in while everyone else moves up to take the next higher spot until it works its way up to the empty spot left by such a star player.

And this comes down to a simple outcome: weaker players means less chance of winning. Losing means not selling tickets (in the US anyway), or not making the playoffs, which is extremely costly from a business point of view.

So why not demand change at a team level? Two reasons. For one, most GMs are themselves hockey guys. They came up the hard way. They’ve taken their knocks, given their teeth to the game, and had their bells rung. It’s what they know, and unless they’re forced to, they aren’t going to give a different way of doing things any thought.

For two, and let’s just face facts, nobody wants to be perceived as soft. There is no question about it—the first team to mandate simple things like mouthguards, helmets that fit and are strapped on tight, and the use of visors for everyone is going to subject its players to abuse of a verbal and physical nature which would drive guys to the brink of insanity as other teams take it out on the . . . (well, you fill in the blank as to what they would be called).

To those of us who live in a civilized world, that code sounds a lot like something we’ve seen on an episode of a reality prison show. There’s not a lot of philosophizing which goes on in a world where fear rules and a few guys control what everyone else does because they’re the most willing and able to hurt other people. But that’s how it is in hockey. It’s why some fights happen and commentators say things like, “Well, he had to get that out of the way, given what happened last game.” So think about that, average middle-class reader. You do something to tick someone in your competitor’s office off, say steal a deal, and you have to live with the knowledge that, next time you see that person, you’re going to have to fight him or her, bareknuckled.

And that leaves everyone with a conumdrum. The most valuable thing a team has is its players, but that same team can do nothing to keep them safe without exposing them to more risk.

That’s hockey for you, and it’s why players keep getting concussed, if you follow the train of logic back to the loose helmets and teams’ unwillingness to demand different.

The fear of change or of being labeled soft can be read two ways. One is the athlete’s way, and it’s a culture which is rooted in a day when coaches said goalies shouldn’t wear facemasks because they would be unable to see the puck at their feet, and that not having the mask was good for them, to keep them brave and in the game.

Jacques Plante put the lie to that, though even he said after he forced Toe Blake to let him wear the mask that his vision down low was compromised. But he never went back after he’d donned it. But then again, Plante was, to his teammates, a weirdo. He was one of the best goalies of all time. But he knitted his own undergarments, which doesn’t bother me, particularly, but then, I’m not a professional hockey player. Mostly, he was left alone in the corner of the room in an era when goalies weren’t typically counted on to say much.

Plante was a pioneer, and nobody today would think of seeing an NHL goalie play without a mask. But it was in many of our lifetimes when exactly the opposite idea prevailed. Who suffered? The player. Look here to see what became of Terry Sawchuk’s face over the course of his career.

So if management isn’t going to do anything about player safety, and the league isn’t, and only the hardiest, most foolish, or rogueish player changes things, and that only once in two generations, it remains to ask why. What’s the mentality that creates this daredevil attitude, which drives players to risk their health and their careers, when the answer is as close as a tightened chinstrap?

 

Next time, we’ll get into the psychology of the players, who ultimately are the losers when injuries happen.

 

PHOTO OF IAN LAPERRIERE COURTESY LA KINGS HOCKEY CLUB

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