It’s time for WHL to do the right thing . . . Decision-makers must act . . . Fighting, headshots have to go

 


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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.

Why?

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.

Robison replied:

“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.



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Scattershooting: The Memorial Cup, a flawed playoff format and more

Scattershooting

The tears hadn’t yet dried in Regina on Monday night when the bleating began on social media, with some fans crying for a change in the format of the four-team Memorial Cup tournament.

The Pats, the host team for this year’s tournament, had just dropped a 3-2 decision to the whlhost Swift Current Broncos in Game 7 of an opening-round WHL playoff series.

Of course, that means the Pats are finished until the Memorial Cup begins, something that is more than 40 days away.

A year ago, it was the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, the host team for the 2017 tournament, who got bounced in the first round. They came back, under head coach Rocky Thompson, a former WHL player and coach, to win the whole thing.

But, the social media gurus wanted to know, how is it fair that a team can lose in the first round and still win the national championship?

No, it isn’t right. But it’s time for people to realize that the Memorial Cup stopped being a national championship in 1983, which is when the present format that includes a host team was adopted.

If you ask around the WHL, those who have been involved in championships will tell you that the Memorial Cup doesn’t carry the cachet of a WHL championship. They also will tell you that playing in the round-robin Memorial Cup can be a letdown after taking part in a gritty, competitive best-of-seven championship series.

Now that we have that out of the way . . .

What the WHL needs to do is admit that its present playoff format is flawed, and — if it isn’t just providing lip service about wanting to minimize travel for its players — go back to having the first two rounds within each division. After the first two rounds, the division champions meet for conference titles, and the two survivors play for the Ed Chynoweth Cup.

The WHL likes to think of itself as a mini-NHL, which is why the present format — one that includes two wild-card entries in each conference — is in place. What’s good for the NHL is good for the WHL, or so the thinking goes.

This playoff format proves that isn’t always the case.

Late last month, with the first round unfolding, the WHL sent its commissioner, Ron Robison, on tour. He started in the Pacific Northwest, mostly doing damage control after that debacle in the Oregon State Legislature in Salem involving minimum-wage legislation, but he also addressed the playoff format.

“We really feel like this is the best format and it works really well for our league,” Robison told Brandon Rivers of dubnetwork.ca. “First of all, when you consider the travel demands on our players, we want to really have those games in the first round in the division, because travel is limited. At the same time, it helps with your rivalries. . . .

“If you look throughout our league in each division, we have some great rivalries. Why not get that competition level really up high in the playoffs and see how it goes from there. There’s pros and cons but, generally speaking, this format makes a lot of sense for our league.”

Later, while in Medicine Hat, Robison told Ryan McCracken of the Medicine Hat News:

“I think when you look into it, it’s more than just the seeding of teams in a playoff competition, whether it’s conference format or a divisional format. For us, in this particular case it’s about the fact that we can reduce travel from the players’ standpoint, we can take advantage of the great rivalries we have.”

We will assume that Robison said this with a straight face, even though he was in BrandonWKregularMedicine Hat, the home of the Tigers, a team that ended up playing the Brandon Wheat Kings in the first round in two straight years. That also meant travelling to Dauphin, Man., where the Wheat Kings played their first-round home games in both series because their home arena had been taken over by the annual Royal Manitoba Winter Fair.

Had the WHL used a divisional playoff format, the Tigers would have met the Calgary Hitmen in last season’s first round, and the Kootenay Ice this time around. The Ice, of course, didn’t even make the playoffs this season, thanks to the wild-card format.

Using the divisional format, the Wheat Kings would have clashed with the Moose Jaw Warriors in this season’s first round. Instead, Brandon ousted Medicine Hat in six games.

(In the Western Conference, the Tri-City Americans, a wild-card entry, swept the B.C. Division-champion Kelowna Rockets. In a divisional format, Tri-City would have opened against the Everett Silvertips, with Kelowna meeting the Kamloops Blazers, who didn’t qualify under this system.)

The present wild-card format also has other flaws.

For starters, the Saskatoon Blades didn’t make the playoffs despite having more victories and more points than two Eastern Conference teams that did advance.

This format also means that every first round includes four series that feature teams that finished second and third in each division. That means that teams that were awfully good over 72 games exit early. Two more awfully good teams are going to go home after the second round, too.

The biggest flaw, however, is that there now is the perception that the wild-card system can be gamed.

I’m not saying that’s what happened this season, but you may recall that the Wheat Kings were third in the overall standings — and third in the Eastern Conference and East Division — when the trade deadline arrived on Jan. 10. A third-place finish in the division would have meant a first-round meeting with Swift Current.

The Wheat Kings chose to trade away two top-end players — defenceman Kale Clague and forward Tanner Kaspick — for a bundle of future assets.

In the end, Regina moved past Brandon into third place, and, as we saw, lost out to Swift Current in the first round. The Wheat Kings ended up in possession of the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card spot, which sent them into the playoffs against Medicine Hat, which had finished atop the Central Division, albeit with four fewer victories and five fewer points than Brandon.

The Wheat Kings now will open the second round against the host Lethbridge Hurricanes on Friday. The Wheat Kings finished the regular season with more victories (40-33) and more points (85-72) than the Hurricanes.

There can be no arguing that the Wheat Kings ended up with an easier route to the conference final than they would have had with a third-place finish in their division. Of course, the Hurricanes may have something to say about that.

There also can be no arguing about the job done by Brandon general manager Grant Armstrong, who added nine assets, including four first-round bantam draft picks, in those two transactions.

Inadvertent or not, he seems to have helped his club improve its playoff odds.

Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, Tri-City, the first wild-card entry, will meet the TriCity30Victoria Royals in the second round, meaning it avoids a potential clash with Everett or the Portland Winterhawks for another round. Everett and Portland are preparing for a second-round series after the Winterhawks beat the visiting Spokane Chiefs, 3-1, in Game 7 last night.

Who knows how all of this will play out, but it all leaves me with one question:

What will be the reaction by the WHL pooh-bahs should Brandon and Tri-City, a pair of wild-card teams, end up in the championship final?


I recently came into possession of the feature stories written this season by Perry Bergson of the Brandon Sun that focus on former Wheat Kings players. This was the second season in which Bergson has written one of these stories each week, and they are most enjoyable. If you can find them, I highly recommend them. I also wonder why more junior hockey writers — assuming that they really love to write — haven’t followed Bergson’s example by producing stories like these.


The fact that none of the numerous Hockey Insiders had the scoop on the retirements of Daniel and Henrik Sedin says a lot about the longtime Vancouver Canucks forwards. Obviously, there aren’t any leaks in the world of the future Hockey Hall of Famers. They were true to themselves right to the end.


Sooner or later, the WHL should be issuing a news release detailing the involvement by its 17 Canadian teams in the organ donor awareness program this season. You may recall that, among other things, the teams wore Don Cherry-tribute sweaters and then made them available via auction. I am guessing that the promotions raised well over $300,000 for the four western branches of the Kidney Foundation of Canada.


On Sept. 9, 1965, left-hander Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers threw a perfect game. Yes, Vin Scully called it. Right here for your reading enjoyment, courtesy salon.com, is that call. It is, as is mentioned here, “pure baseball literature.”