NHL needs to protect its players from themselves

Last winter, while broadcasting games for the USHL’s Muskegon (Mich.) Lumberjacks, I witnessed something that will stay with me until the day I die.

A 17-year-old hockey player was dropped to the ice during a fight. After a brief moment of unconsciousness, he quickly rose to his feet and immediately re-assumed the classic fighter’s pose: knees bent, fists up, eyes fixed on the enemy.

The only problem was that he was facing the wrong direction, ready to continue his bare-knuckle boxing match with a phantom opponent. As the Lumberjacks’ athletic trainer enlisted the victim’s teammates to help escort him off the ice, nausea swept over me while I tried to convey the scene to the listeners and viewers.

Mar 6, 2013; Toronto, ON, Canada; Ottawa Senators left wing Dave Dziurzynski (59) lays on the ice after being hit by Toronto Maple Leafs left wing Frazer McLaren (38) at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

I wasn’t alone, as most of the fans in the 4,000-seat L.C. Walker Arena were eerily silent, watching this disoriented, wobbly-legged athlete eventually make his way to the Muskegon dressing room. The rest of the game, already a blowout in favor of visiting Green Bay, seemed even more irrelevant after that.

I had a flashback to that moment when watching NHL highlights from Wednesday night. In the opening minute of play at Air Canada Centre, Ottawa’s David Dziurzynski got knocked flat on his back by a devastating punch from Toronto’s Frazer McLaren.

As one would expect after such a direct hit to the head, Dziurzynski didn’t return to the game and was almost immediately diagnosed as having sustained a concussion.

I’ve made my case against fighting on this website before, but this particular incident plays into a larger theme in my mind.

Earlier this week, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal was felled by a deflected shot that drilled him just millimeters above his right eye. Only sheer luck spared his vision, as it seems like he will be able to make a full recovery, but the grisly tableau at Madison Square Garden reminded everyone involved with the sport about the dangers of playing without some form of facial protection.

At any rate, the cases of Staal and Dziurzynski provide the latest in a series of arguments for the NHL’s need to take a more proactive approach toward player safety.

If the league and its 30 member clubs truly value the health of their players, from the most elite stars to the fourth-line pluggers, it needs to take steps to limit unnecessary risk.

Mar. 5, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal (18) skates off the ice with a trainer after getting hit in the face with a puck against the Philadelphia Flyers during the third period at Madison Square Garden. Rangers won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

The brain and the eyes are obviously invaluable whether you’re playing a sport or simply navigating a typical life. That’s why, despite protestations that the players “know what they’re getting into,” the NHL needs to find a way to protect its assets.

For this observer, that means mandating that visors be worn my every player on an NHL ice surface, “grandfather clause” be damned. Let the athletes adapt to the change over an offseason and they’ll be fine, much like college hockey players get used to donning a full facial “cage” or “bubble.”

Furthermore, fighting should be penalized with a mandatory ejection and one-game suspension, once again using NCAA hockey as the model. Whether you’re talking juniors or pros, the brain is a fragile organ that doesn’t respond well to blunt trauma.

For the libertarian-minded among us, who feel these regulations would be imposing upon players’ freedoms, think of it this way: the NHL is a multi-billion dollar business, with the preservation of its scarce resources (the players) being essential to its continued success.

It’s basic risk management, and neither mandating visors nor stigmatizing fighting will fundamentally alter the speed, skill and power that makes high-level hockey a great spectator sport.

Or you could take a step back and look at it this way: do you enjoy watching fellow human beings stagger around, babble incoherently and/or writhe in excruciating pain?

I didn’t think so. It’s a matter of common sense, and common decency.

Topics: New York Rangers, NHL, Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh Penguins

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