The first round of the NHL playoffs have been one of the most brutal I can remember following the lockout.
It seems like every night we're treated to another questionable hit, another opportunity to cringe. As the media runs yet another story about the unfettered ferociousness of the game of hockey, and coaches like Todd McLellan talk about the borderline chaos running rampant, we sit back and watch another little piece of mayhem unfold in the first NHL postseason to have every game carried on national TV.
Hockey has always been a physical game. It has always been a contact sport. It has been that way for decades and will be for decades more. The way skill and physicality come together in harmony is probably the biggest reason why you're even reading this today, and that blurred line is a huge part of the reason why it makes hockey the best game on Earth.
But if you think it's too dangerous now, I can assure you it is only going to get worse.
It has a little to do with the players not respecting one another anymore. I think that line of thinking was never particularly true anyways-- there's a pretty strong argument to be made that respect for opponents has actually improved in the last decade. And sure you have inconsistency in officiating, alleged double standards when applying suspensions to star vs. non-star players, and the age old debate on whether fighting has a role in the game or not. You can rifle through that list until your fingers turn raw, but I'm not sure it's going to get you anywhere.
Because when it comes down to it, there's a dirty little secret we all seem to forget whenever we bring up these hits that cause injury.
The players are much faster than they were ten years ago.
That's it. With more speed comes bigger collisions. With bigger collisions comes more potential for injury. And with more potential for injury you get more, well, injuries. It's not hard to see the correlation here, and while it might be simplifying things a bit and ignoring some of the predatory hits we've seen this postseason, it really is that simple.
Everyone wants speed in the game but they don't want to see the consequences of that speed. It's going to reach a point (it has reached a point?) when that is no longer an achievable goal. You either reduce the speed (and greatly reduce the excitement) or you continue to see more and more hits that cause injury.
This is exactly what the General Managers discussed during their March meetings, and the majority of them came to a completely reasonable conclusion-- re-instituting the red line to prevent the two line pass would slow everything down, make the trap more prevalent, and do little in the way to grow the game.
That's what makes this decision so difficult. The evolution of the game is progressing, but with that evolution we get hits that are becoming more and more brutal. There is no easy fix, and while we can sit here from the safety of our computer screens and talk about exactly what needs to be done for this to change, half of us might not be here in five years if those proposed changes are enacted. The physical aspect of the game is what makes it so damn appealing, the speed is what sucks us in.
As the always insightful Bob McKenzie has said multiple times lately, the NHL considers a hit that comes more than 0.5 seconds late is an interference call. So now we can break out the HD instant replay, go frame by frame, and come to the conclusion that a hit 0.7 seconds late is a dirty play while one that came 0.2 seconds beforehand was clean.
It's the standard the NHL has to have in order to establish some barometer of right and wrong, but if you're telling a guy in a playoff game that he needs to make a split second decision (literally) when the game is moving at a lightning pace you're going to get plays that cross that line.
I'm not saying that's right; I am saying that's natural.
Players are stronger than they were ten years ago, they're faster than they were ten years ago, their equipment is better than it was ten years ago, their conditioning is vastly superior to where it was ten years ago, the competition for spots is tougher than it was ten years ago, their dietary habits are light years ahead of where they were ten years ago.
Just like technological and scientific breakthroughs (half these things are because of technological and scientific breakthroughs), these things accelerate exponentially. We will eventually hit critical mass and frankly I don't think there's a solution out there right now that everyone can get behind.
This has nothing to do with cheap shots or blatant hits that target the head. Everyone with half a brain wants to remove those from the game, especially when many of those have premeditation written all over them. They've got to go, concussions are on the rise, players who have shown a history of predatory hits have no place in the sport.
But at the end of the day, weeding those out won't be that difficult if the League is willing to take a stand. You can highlight players who have a history and levy suspensions that carry a large amount weight. We've yet to see it happen consistently, but the option is there.
The speed of the game is going to be the primary issue moving forward, a place where a clean bang bang hit ten years ago that resulted in a turnover is now a clean bang bang hit that results in a sixty day plus concussion.
And I don't think anyone has the answer.