Jack Blatherwick

Follow the rules

Research shows the relationship between rules enforcement and brain/spine injuries. What is not shown is how rules enforcement promotes skill development.

By Jack Blatherwick
Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

ScienceDaily is not a peer-reviewed, technical journal, the kind where every paragraph needs to be read five times. Instead, it reviews many of the latest findings from those technical journals in language we can all understand. Recently they reported on several Canadian studies which all found that hockey rules intended to limit aggressive play and rules-enforcement reduce the incidence of brain and spinal cord injuries. 

Hockey can reduce traumatic injuries and increase the skill level in youth hockey by simply enforcing existing rules. On the other hand, football at all levels has a problem with concussions that isn’t going away soon.  With the most recent suicide (Junior Seau), the problem reached front page status again. Boston University studied Seau’s brain, and as with many hockey players who made their living as tough guys, Seau’s brain had significant anatomical and functional damage.  

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is easily identified during autopsy, and symptoms before death include early dementia, motor dysfunction and/or depression – picture Muhammed Ali or Derek Boogaard. CTE accumulates over a lifetime of minor concussions: blows to the head or hits to the torso, which cause whiplash, in which the brain bounces against the skull. Better football helmets are not going to solve this problem completely, because heavy collisions are a major, legal factor in winning.

Heavy collisions are also part of the game in hockey, but many are illegal and preferentially ignored by NHL officials in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This eliminates the advantage that skillful players have during the regular season, and it’s “… the way we like it,” in the words of one NHL TV commentator.  “Let the players decide the outcome, not the refs.”

Then, of course, the less-skilled players decide the outcome. Traditions like this in the NHL play a major role in determining the culture of hockey at the youth, high school, junior and college levels. 

In Europe and Russia, the tradition is to enforce the rules as they are written – a rather quaint idea in comparison to the macho unwritten codes in North America that separate ‘cheap brutality’ from ‘acceptable brutality.’ Consequently, in Europe, skills are necessary to win; they are emphasized at every level, and – lo and behold – a disproportionate number of highly skilled players in the NHL come from these countries.

Unwritten codes, rather than rules enforcement might be an NHL tradition that a majority of ticket holders want to see. I don’t know or care. But to young children it looks like confusing double-speak. 

“It’s interesting,” said one NHL coach. “We talk out of both sides of our mouth about blows to the head. We have the refs enforce the rule if there is a major check to the head, but we encourage players to punch the other guy’s lights out in a fight. If the loser of a fight falls unconscious to the ice and suffers permanent brain damage, there is no suspension for a blow to the head.”

This is why can’t wait for leadership from the NHL. We’d expect USA Hockey to play a role in this, but, “USA Hockey is too big,” said one of their officials. “For example, the charging rule has never been enforced. In reality, boarding is nothing but charging into the boards. If we enforced the charging penalty we wouldn’t need to worry about boarding or checking from behind.”

OK. Dust off the charging penalty that has been ignored for decades. If we want young children to play a sport that doesn’t cause cumulative brain damage – or worse – and if we want to protect skills in youth hockey, we simply have to enforce existing rules. We don’t need major penalties. We don’t need special emphasis. We have to treat referees as professionals, and allow them to enforce the rulebook as it is written. Get off their backs for calling penalties, but fire them if they fail to do so.

For a look at this review in Science Daily, and five more related studies, go to http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121203121636.htm#.UPQ4aFHwrEg.