Columns / Discourse / November 20, 2019

The deadly cost of brutal tradition

On Jan. 19, 2019, Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask got knocked down by an airborne Filip Chytil – a player for the New York Rangers – as he scored a goal at TD Garden.

The goal horns sounded, but it couldn’t have been more quiet in Boston than in that moment.

Rask lost consciousness upon impact.

Chytil and the New York Rangers were blissfully unaware of this for a moment as they celebrated the goal.

The moments that followed were tense. Rask was only down on the ice for a couple minutes, but at that moment the 17,000 people either at that rink in Boston or watching from elsewhere were stuck, waiting to see what happens.

His injuries could’ve ranged anywhere from a concussion that would only take him out of commission for a couple weeks, to serious brain damage that ends his career. You never know how bad it truly is.

This would not be as notable if it was an isolated incident. However, what happened to Rask only serves as one accident in a long line of similar ones every season.

During their 2019-20 season home opener against the Bruins, Dallas Stars’ defenseman Roman Pol‡k failed to make a hit on Bruins’ defenseman Matt Grzelcyk, and instead fell and crashed head first into the boards.

Following that, he remained unconscious and on the ice for nearly five minutes while being attended to by medical staff. He was taken off on a stretcher and immediately brought to a hospital.

During those five minutes on the ice, TV broadcasts didn’t dare cut away.

The same happened with the Ottawa Sentator’s Scott Sabourin only a month later. After making head on head contact with the Boston Bruins’ David Backes, he collapsed on the ice, fully unconscious and bleeding.

For the next twelve minutes, broadcasts showed uninterrupted shots of the growing pool of blood around Sabourin. Fans at the game were sobbing at the gruesome scene in front of them. The crowd of medical personnel on the ice only seemed to get larger by the minute. Broadcasts showed Backes trying and failing to hold back tears.

Sabourin too had to be taken off on a stretcher and was immediately brought to a hospital.

As instances like these begin to pile up, some important questions need to be raised.

At what point do you look away?

When you see a car wreck when you’re driving down the street, everybody has to slow down and stare, always greedy for that glimpse into somebody else’s world. This employs that same mentality.

At what point do you take a step back and say enough is enough? At what point is the safety and wellbeing of the players prioritized over a game?

The NHL is embedded with a belief that a player must act like a warrior: everything within you goes out onto the ice every night, no matter what might happen to you physically or mentally.

During game four of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, Boston Bruins Captain Zdeno Chara got hit in the face with a puck. He fell to the ice, bleeding. He didn’t return to the game.

His jaw had been fractured in multiple places by the hit.

Chara was on the ice for game five two days later.

News regarding this spread online and the sentiment from most was clear: Chara is more akin to a war horse than a man.

He was applauded for his dedication to the sport with no regard for how harmful his decision could be for his health.

While precautions like wearing a full face mask are taken, hockey is still a physical sport, and Chara is still a big bodied, physical player.

For professional hockey players, every injury is an inconvenience. Having to take the time away from the game to heal is never valued. Many downplay the effects of injuries just so they can keep playing.

In 1968, Bill Masterton of the then Minnesota North Stars received what seemed to be an innocuous check. Because of it, he fell onto the ice and hit the back of his head and lost consciousness.

He never regained consciousness.

Masterton was believed to already have a concussion prior to this event that he chose to continue to play through. Because of that, a hit that would’ve most likely only taken him out of a few games took his life 36 hours later.

Back in those days, safety regulations in the NHL were practically nonexistent. Nobody wore helmets, nobody wore pads. And while steps have been taken to make the game safer in modern times, gruesome injuries are still extremely common.

Violence is regarded as one of the most integral parts of the sport, but when the safety of players is constantly treated as a joke by the league, beliefs – no matter how long held – need to change.

Tags:  concussion nhl professional hockey sports sports safety

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