Included in a WHL news release that was issued on June 14 following the league’s annual meeting in Vancouver was this sentence:
“The WHL took further measures to address player safety by introducing new supplemental discipline regulations and raising its standard on illegal checks to the head.”
The news release didn’t provide any further details, but it says here that anything short of a complete ban on fighting and all contact with an opponent’s head, including incidental contact, is a complete failure.
If the WHL really — really, really, really — cares about the health and safety of its players it is time to make these moves. In fact, it’s well past time.
Well, let’s start with this Ken Dryden piece from the op-ed pages of the Washington Post.
And then there’s this piece right here from The Players Tribune. Written by Nick Boynton, a former major junior player who went to skate in the NHL, it isn’t pretty.
At one point, Boynton writes of his three-year-old son: “But I cannot, in good conscience, let him play the game of ice hockey until something changes and we start looking out for our players by taking the problems of head hits and concussions — and their potential impact on mental health — more seriously.”
Boynton also writes:
“Yes, ours is a physical, violent sport. And it may be the case that we cannot rid hockey of that violence and danger altogether. But at the very least let’s deal with the issues that arise as a result of that. Deal with the head trauma. Deal with the concussions. And deal with all of the ramifications that those things bring about.
“Stop telling people the world is flat and just do the right thing. Instead of ignoring the damage that occurs to the brain when you get your bell rung out on the ice, let’s own up to it and get guys the help they need. Not just after they retire, but while they’re playing the game.
“Let’s start addressing the problem. Let’s look closely at the brain — and how our sport as we currently play it might be harmful to the brain — and begin making things right.”
In a recent conversation with Brandon Rivers of dubnetwork.ca, WHL commissioner Ron Robison was asked about the fact that the OHL has fighting restrictions — Rivers pointed out that “If a player fights more than three times in a season, that player will be subjected to a two-game suspension for each fight over the number allowed” — while the WHL has no such thing.
“I think that is another example. Each in our own way we are looking to reduce or eliminate fighting or what we would call . . . unnecessary fighting in the game. In our case, we have a WHL Player Safety Seven Point Plan, which has been in place for several seasons. We review that annually and make recommendations and we will be reviewing that actually with our general managers . . . It is an ongoing process. We each approach things a little differently but for the most part we are on the same page as far as what we are trying to accomplish.”
Robison, if you haven’t noticed, has got commissioner-speak down to a fine art where he uses many words to really say, well, not much. What he should have said is this:
“There is more and more scientific evidence linking CTE to blows to the head. Whether or not CTE is a direct result of blows to the head and/or concussions/traumatic brain injury, we are well aware that blows to the head aren’t good and may cause irreparable damage.
“As a result, the WHL is moving to the forefront of this issue by banning fighting. When a player has one fight, he will receive a warning. A second fight will carry with it a two-game suspension, with three games for a third, four for a fourth, etc.
“This is just another case of our wanting to protect the health of our players now and in the future.”
It would be easy for the WHL to adopt the IIHF’s rule that deals with checking to the head or neck. It’s Rule 124 in the IIHF rule book that is readily available at iihf.com.
Dryden, the former NHL goaltender whose latest book is Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, spoke for 40 minutes at the See The Line symposium in London, Ont., on Thursday.
“Six years ago the process began (with See The Line),” he said. “Injuries happen, sometimes career-diminishing, sometimes career-ending, some that change a person’s life; and change them and make them not them anymore. In six years we are now more aware of that too.
“But after six years we still have this immense problem with brain injury in sports. Why? What can we do now? Our response to it is we need better science; we need to understand it better and that becomes our focus . . . to get better technology and the focus becomes on science. The problem is when it becomes so much of the focus; science takes time and games are played tomorrow.”
Later, he told Morris Dalla Costa of the London Free Press, whose piece is right here:
“If you don’t force decision-makers to do something, things will remain the same. We have to move beyond just awareness and science. As I said in the end it is up to the decision-makers to take all this awareness that’s been raised and apply it. They have every right to simply carry on and that’s the problem; they are the roadblock. Why do we let them off the hook? Put it into the hands of those whose hands it should be in. Say to them ‘you are not custodians of the game; but custodians of the people playing the game.’ What are you doing for them?”
If you would like to support my wife, Dorothy, as she celebrates the fifth anniversary of her kidney transplant by taking part in the 2018 Kamloops Kidney Walk on Sept. 23, you are able to do so right here.