The NHL has a well documented, scary concussion problem. How does this affect hockey in 2012 and beyond?
Concussions are on the rise in the NHL. It is easily seen all over the sport, from fourth line fighters to guys like Chris Pronger and Sidney Crosby. Awareness of concussions has increased in the entire sports world, so incidents are being reported that would have never been reported in the old days. But that does not nearly explain the rise that we see in the sport of hockey. The upward trend of concussions can be mostly attributed to three factors:
1) The game has been opened up. After the 2005 lockout, the NHL loosened the rules on passing. 2 line passes are no longer illegal. So, instead of having to attack in a controlled rush, guys are able to fly up the wings as defensemen shoot the puck up the ice. Although I love the flow of the game, faster skating means harder hits.
2) Padding. Lets make this clear: I'm not saying guys should not be protected. Hockey is a brutal sport, and the players should be given every defense against injury. But it seems the current padding on regular NHL players is less like padding and more like body armor. When players feel like they are invincible, they play like they are. This translates into faster play and more bone-crushing hits.
3) Players are bigger. This one seems like a no-brainer. Hockey players today are bigger and more athletic than the guys that came before. Players are pushed, usually from a very young age, with a singular goal in mind: to play hockey, as it is with many professional sports.
Concussions in hockey are a big problem in and of itself. But this issue has many important implications. Many people are unaware that hockey's collective bargaining agreement runs out at the end of the season, and relations between the league and the NHLPA have been tense. Recently, the league devised a realignment plan that all of the owners agreed on, which is necessary after the Winnipeg Jets were created. This plan was just shot down by the NHLPA for no real reason, just to prove a point to the league. With the players association, led by Donald Fehr, (head of the MLBPA in 1995, yeah, that guy) spoiling for a fight, the concussion situation is one they can use to grab more power for the players. The lockout will be a rough one, probably cutting into the next season as the owners and players fight it out. Look for the concussion situation and player safety to factor in prominently as the lockout wears on. Rule changes might even be brought on, like reversing the passing rule. Whatever happens, it figures to be a wild year for the National Hockey League.