Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Burden of Protection - Head Trauma from the Far Side

First, the prerequisite link:  New post over at Capitals Outsider today - The Lesser-Known Caps in the System [2/2].

Today's post was originally going to be on the topic of the NHL's summer R&D camp, but that's been pushed back a few days.  Instead, since a large portion of the hockey community is debating how soon is too soon to use Wade Belak's death as the launching point for a Fighting Discussion, I'll be touching on the last great source of public outcry: Head Trauma.  And because this blog looks at hockey with an emphasis on the officials involved, I'll be focusing on the role of on-ice officials in the rule changes that have been rolled out over the last year.

To be clear, there's nothing laudable about Wade Belak's death (or the two well-publicized deaths earlier this summer).  And I'm certainly not against discussion about fighting/drawbacks-thereof in the professional sphere (or the impact of the professional hockey lifestyle upon players) - information and idea exchange is always a good thing, so long as the parties involved are actually willing to both talk and listen.  I'm just concerned that there will be a great deal of idealistic shouting and very little actual exchange.

So instead, I'm going to touch upon the last NHL-level flashpoint topic.  One that continues to be relevant in light of yesterday's announcement that Marc Savard will not be playing this fall with the Bruins (and majority opinion favours his eventual retirement without a return to the lineup).  Sidney Crosby's brain is a topic of continual debate, both in the Pittsburgh press and the wider media.  And the discussion has spilled over into the amateur arena.

I'll admit - the topic of head trauma is near and dear to my heart.  As a varsity athlete in high school back in the years before the major studies in youth concussions were released, I took more than a few knocks to the noggin.  Almost a decade later, I still suffer secondary symptoms from the incidents - I lose track of time, I have days where I don't process multiple input streams at full capacity, and there are portions of my childhood that I can't reliably recall.  Thus, I tend to keep an eye on studies and policy changes relating to the athlete's brain, youth and adult.

This year, rule changes have been approved for both the major North American amateur hockey organization.  As the fall season gets underway, USAHockey is implementing new body-checking policies and Hockey Canada has recently adopted a zero-tolerance policy regarding head shots.  For better or worse, officiating will play a major role in determining their effectiveness, and the job isn't getting any easier.

As most athletes (and spectators) are aware, officiating intentionally varies in strictness from level to level.  When refereeing mites, for example (Canadian or American), refs are advised to call all penalties because at that age it's about players learning what they're doing.  C or D-Leagues are the same way - there are certainly intentional infractions, but most hooking, tripping, and interference incidents are complete accidents relating to lack of skill and experience on the part of the skaters.  What gets called (or doesn't) guides players in their development, and they learn boundaries in the practical sense instead of simply the theoretical.

When you get into the advanced levels - travel AA and AAA, juniors, NCAA and professional teams - officiating becomes more about controlling the game and judging intent.  Some penalties are automatic (too many men, for example), but the subjectivity in calls increases and there's more of a leaning towards letting teams "play hockey."  It's a nebulous concept, and opinion varies widely on both sides of the stripes just where particular lines should be drawn - How late is too late after a play? How much does intent matter when a blow to the head occurs?  What constitutes Intent to Injure?  How much do you let slide because otherwise you'll have to throw both players in the box?

Development Camp for the Caps this summer proved an interesting (and unexpected) illustration of these differences in accepted levels of enforcement.  Three different crews of officials worked the scrimmages held over the course of the week.  Of those, one crew was singled out by Coach Boudreau for not calling enough penalties.  Ironically, the crew taken to task was also the only one to be made up of officials with AHL/ECHL-level experience.  Coincidence?  Possibly, but it still serves to highlight the differences in the approach to enforcement in the professional and amateur leagues.

The NHL has upgraded their own policies on head shots, adding clarification and opening the door for more consistent supplemental discipline.  These rule changes are likely to trickle down to the lower-level professional leagues as well, though with varying degrees of autonomy for the officials overseeing the games.

It's hard to say what impact the new rules will have in the coming season.  Stiffer penalties on paper are certainly a step in the right direction when it comes to curbing injuries, but only when there's consistency of enforcement behind them - something that the NHL was notoriously bad about under the Campbell regime, and something which is difficult to police amongst an officiating body which is primarily volunteer-based such as the USA Hockey officiating districts.

In and amongst all the talk of punishments and controlling situations, it is also important to remember that some injuries are inevitable.  It's a truth that everyone accepts when they sign on for hockey, whether it's with a house C-league or the NHL.  Something will be bruised, will be broken, will be sprained.  The point of regulation is that we as a group want to see major injuries be the exception rather than the norm.

That we're having conversations about these issues and that changes are happening on paper is fantastic, it's a step in exactly the right direction.  What will be even better is when the changes are absorbed into the culture of hockey - when "Let the boys play" no longer includes an expectation of harm and physical damage.  After all, this is hockey - there are plenty of bruises to go around without looking for more.

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