Ken Dryden’s recent analysis of what is wrong with hockey is the first I’ve seen that makes an honest and accurate assessment of the problems of the game at the NHL level. In this analysis, which was delivered at the Canadian university championships for men’s hockey in Fredericton and then printed in The Globe and Mail, Dryden goes beyond the excuses that both top-level NHL brass and passionate, but equally ignorant, sports-talk-show callers have made for the growing dangerousness of the sport of hockey. The former Montreal Canadiens goalie and current Toronto Maple Leafs president points out that it is not just the size of the players that has changed, but also the length of their shifts (shorter today), resulting in a faster-paced, more intense game. That the game is played by larger players, at a faster speed, Dryden points out, results in a force that is obvious and simple physics. So he calls on the leaders of the sport, of which he is one, to make real changes that acknowledge this, as well as acknowledging that this force, not by physics but by some unfortunate alchemy of emotion and national pride, often turns into violence.
Dryden is unique among hockey players in that he is an intellectual. The inevitable reactions to this true but disturbing exposure of the sadism of our national sport will come from the likes of Don Cherry and Vancouver Canucks president and GM Brian Burke, and will reveal the intellectual discrepancy between the average hockey player (or former hockey player) and Dryden, an eloquent and erudite man. Dryden’s argument exposes the fear of change that accompanies the ignorance of those running the NHL, a fear that these aging men cling to in an effort to keep their own legacies intact. Dryden at least is looking to establish a more productive and influential legacy than that of, say, his coach Pat Quinn, who is renowned for laying out Bobby Orr with a body check--Dryden is concerned for the well-being of all hockey players, including children and teenagers who play the game in awe-filled emulation of their heroes. Quinn and Burke care only about the players on their individual teams and don’t see the game as a whole. Even those in the NHL front offices refuse to acknowledge that though the NHL is the world’s premier hockey league, it is not the only league, and it is in danger of losing its status, in favour, as Dryden says, of the extreme.
Pierre McGuire, another hockey mind more active than your average Wade Belak, has called for a ban on fighting in the NHL. This is not as revolutionary a stance as it might sound: fighting is banned in most minor leagues and in Canadian and American university hockey. However, Rob Daum, the coach of the University of Alberta Golden Bears, wants to bring fighting back in order to cut down on “cheap shots” that apparently come as a result of players not being able to let out their frustrations by beating another player senseless.
Daum and McGuire may seem at odds, but they are both making the same mistake: treating the symptom, not the cause. Dryden looks to the root cause of the problem, namely, the size and speed of the players. The game must evolve to accommodate these two elements. Unfortunately, that is more difficult than it sounds. Restricting the size of players is simply not realistic; lengthening their shifts does not seem likely because it is not easily policed, unless you go to a house-league-style A-line/B-line three-minute buzzer system, and that’s not going to happen. Another possibility, the elimination of changing on the fly, could work, but to me, that seems like a half-measure, and it appears to slow down the game too much. So we are left with treating the symptoms.
Where I believe change might occur with the best results is with the players themselves. Where I disagree with Dryden’s call for change is that his model allows the players to eschew responsibility by claiming that the rules need to be changed to accommodate their ferocity, rather than holding themselves accountable for dangerous play. This accountability must come in some other form than the current Old Testament knee-ligament-for-a-knee-ligament code of so-called honour; the denial in the dressing rooms is appalling. Not only are careless uses of the stick dismissed as “accidental,” but blatant attacks are encouraged, as lessons to teach young kids some respect. In addition, the use of stimulants before games and between periods is on the rise, yet the players deny any relationship between being hyped up on pseudoephedrine and making wild, bull-like charges against their peers.
McGuire has also advocated harsher penalties for intent to injure, such as players having to serve the full sentence of their penalty. This used to be the case, but was changed in the 1950s because of the Montreal Canadiens’ formidable power play; the rule is out of date. Perhaps this change might prove to be more of a deterrent than Krzysztof Oliwa or Wade Belak. Are hockey players so stupid that they will continue to play a reckless, dangerous game after having watched the opposing team score three goals in two minutes while they were sitting in the penalty box? Or is it just that they are flying so high on goofballs that they can’t see the difference? Either because of stupidity or the use of unprescribed stimulants, the players in the NHL are a danger to themselves.
There is some hope, though. In the final weekend of the NHL regular season, Tie Domi, a well-known pugilist, turned down repeated offers to “go” from Ottawa’s Chris Neil. Don Cherry tried to pass this off as some kind of tough-guy code thing (because one of them had a hand injury or something), but what Don missed here was an opportunity to show that one of his beloved tough guys, ol’ Tahir Domi, is not just some dumb thug. Domi, with his club up by several goals, knew there was no need for a fight (problematic in itself because that assumes that there may be a need at some other time, but . . . ), and I don’t doubt that the recent climate of questioning the need for fighting in hockey contributed to his decision. It’s this gratuitous grappling that hurts the game, especially when the combatants don’t do anything else. Domi can play as well as fight--he scored a goal last Saturday night--so he knows his job is probably safe. Neil, on the other hand, can’t do much but skate around and tug on opposing players’ jerseys in the hopes of starting something. Maybe this is the beginning of something new: smart hockey players.