Off-key in the NHL headshot chorus

A memo to those who are concerned with (hitherto) legal checks to the head in the NHL: I sure hope you’re not just fighting physics. Because you’ll lose.

I see nothing wrong with the proposed new rule against blind-side hits to the head. I’d be willing to take it even further, and adopt an easy-to-apply strict-liability standard; if you hit somebody in a way that induces unconsciousness, or causes a concussion, you sit out the next n games. This would spare us from adopting hard-to-apply rules whose enforcement might ebb and crest, vary between personalities, and differ between leagues and regions. (It would occasionally lead, like all strict-liability rules, to unfair-seeming results and punishments for actions that didn’t look unjust or vicious aside from the outcome. But almost anything is better, at least to my mind, than a rule defined by excessively complex language, taught by means of intuitive references to a mass of individual cases, and left to evolve so that everybody thinks he knows the offence when he sees it.)

Ultimately, we are going to have collisions, and concussions, in the game of hockey, and the general quality of thinking about them is pathetically weak. Almost every columnist is quick to assail the disciplinary and managerial guardians of the game for lacking his own up-to-the-minute moral sensitivities; none stops to consider how unintended changes to the game, fundamental physical factors, may have increased the incidence and severity of closed head injuries. We routinely speak and act as if the rules are the only thing in hockey that humans have control over.

It’s sometimes observed, for example, that the players are bigger and the game faster than 20 or 30 years ago. But nobody ever sorts out the relative importance of these effects; a player whose mass is 5% bigger has 5% more kinetic energy in open ice, but if his velocity is increased 5%, the energy varies according to the square, and thus increases by more than 10%. If you watch early ’80s hockey, what immediately strikes you, once you get past the sheer horribleness of the goaltending, is the relative slowness of the game. There’s no one reason for this: plenty of things have changed just a little bit, from the quality of icemaking to skate technology to the way skaters are trained. And the change isn’t that extreme, or else Chris Chelios, who actually played early ’80s hockey in the early ’80s, would be unable to draw a paycheque in his weak-bladder years. Still, it’s a factor with exponential weight.

No one wants to consider deliberately slowing down the game, but we should at least consider that its speed is part of the problem, and a part we can’t ignore if we want to address collisions at the fundamental level of imparted energy. Otherwise, as the game continues to get faster, we’ll constantly be playing catch-up with rule changes. The speed is there in the game for pure entertainment purposes, just as much as the bodychecking is. It is, without any possible question, part of the game’s danger; more speed means more and worse injuries, all other things being equal. If you won’t consider steps to slow things down, you are in exactly, EXACTLY the same ethical position as somebody who refuses to consider changes to bodychecking doctrine. Hope I didn’t just put a bullet in the head of your high horse.

Another immediately noticeable thing about early ’80s hockey, of course, is the less ridiculous padding. Armour initially introduced to prevent injuries has pretty clearly become weaponized. And the role of helmets in preventing some hypothetical background rate of concussions is poorly understood. The concussions have, by the best measurements we can make, increased as helmets became common and then mandatory.

We can’t do without helmets, since they demonstrably prevent catastrophic and immediately life-threatening head trauma from pucks, falls, and checks. But if players feel more comfortable throwing Cooke-style shoulders to the head now, it’s probably, in part, because everyone wears a helmet. We know that no change to helmet design has ever been shown to reduce concussions. We know that the forces that cause most concussions are rotational, as helmet expert Pat Bishop recently pointed out; and it’s conceivable that, on the whole, helmets worsen the specific problem of concussion by adding more angular momentum to rotational blows [UPDATE: but see commenter Gaunilon’s objection to this bit]. The increase in concussions may be part of the price we are paying for the absolute elimination of skull fractures from the pro game.

If so, it’s almost certainly a price worth paying. And, please, spare me the citations of brain-injury data from American football. NFL players are taught to use their helmeted heads as weapons, and linemen are subjected to brain injuries on nearly every snap of a game; that was a major point of the admittedly compelling Malcolm Gladwell article you’re all so impressed with yourselves for having read. (I’ll leave aside the possibility that Gladwell is overselling the findings of some scientists he got all excited about hanging out with, and since it’s Gladwell, by “possibility” I mean “extreme likelihood you could happily bet your house on”.) There’s no analogue to this brutal, repetitive activity in hockey, and no research to justify comparison with the NFL’s problem. Hockey has to solve hockey’s problems, and only hockey’s. Full stop.