How would hockey change without hitting?

Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/5421/" data-ylk="slk:William Karlsson">William Karlsson</a>, left, of Sweden, falls to the ice after a hit by <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/teams/was" data-ylk="slk:Washington Capitals">Washington Capitals</a> forward <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/5696/" data-ylk="slk:Tom Wilson">Tom Wilson</a>. (Alex Brandon/AP)
William Karlsson, left, of Sweden, falls to the ice after a hit by Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Any time you suggest to some people that a thing they like may in some ways be bad, it’s a big problem.

The human cost of, say, global climate change is only really starting to be felt, but people who are not personally affected by it (for now) will say of the systems upholding it, which often benefit them personally, “That’s just how it has to be, because it has always been that way.”

When the world becomes an oven, and coastal cities drown — 40, 50 years from now — they will look back and say, “We should have done more,” but no one wants to ride their bike to work or more importantly change the ways in which business and government fundamentally operate to address the things that we know to a certainty to be major contributing factors.

So it is with hockey. Because if you do what Eric Lindros did last week and say in public, “Maybe we should get hitting out of the game entirely, because it will lead to fewer traumatic brain injuries,” the backlash is immediate and uproarious.

How could Lindros, who played on a line called the Legion of Doom and made a lot of money specifically because of the physical style he played, say such a thing? Sure, he also excelled — made it to the Hockey Hall of Fame if memory serves! — because he was immensely talented at the hockey portion of the sport and not just the hitting and fighting. And he would also have a unique perspective on the relationship between skill and grit because he had massive quantities of both. And he would further likely have an important take on that relationship because the latter derailed and then ended his promising career long before it should have concluded.

“Surely,” the hockey world pleaded, “you cannot mean ALL hitting.” And because Lindros is a Hockey Guy in the classical sense, he demurred, saying in so many words, “Ah you’re right, I meant hitting in the youth game.” Everyone seemed satisfied enough with that answer to let it be.

No one wants to see children who “don’t know any better” get concussed playing hockey if they’re gonna top out in junior B or whatever. That halfway solution, such as it is, obviously raises its own conundrums: If players don’t know how to hit properly — and take hits, for that matter — as they graduate from bantam to junior, that might not be that much of an issue, especially if a hitting ban were phased in over a year or three.

Graduating from non-hitting hockey to professional hockey, though, would potentially be a real issue for that first wave of players. A league full of 29-year-olds who grew up throwing checks relatively early in their development would hospitalize dozens of younger guys with little experience using their bodies to protect and dislodge the puck; it would be like the early days of World War I when troops from less advanced militaries just ran at machine-gun nests because they’d never seen one before, and their bodies created virtual mountains over which their brothers in arms had to scramble, only to be mowed down themselves.

This isn’t like the NHL’s idea of “fighting is leaving the game naturally,” because while no one coming into the league in 2018 has much experience with it given that junior leagues are legislating it out of the sport at the developmental level, in hockey you usually (but not always) have the option to not-fight. No one gives you the option to plead out of getting run into the boards or hit in the open ice on a carry-in. That’s not how the game works.

Advocates of hitting say hockey is a contact sport and you just have to accept that guys are going to liquify their brains playing it sometimes. I tell this story every once in a while, but one time several years ago, when I wrote that the NHL should impose stiff penalties for any hits that make contact with the head, regardless of “intent” or anything else, a league executive wrote to the former editor of this site and never-played-the-game’d me. The implication being, of course, that you could only understand from a logical perspective that head contact is unavoidable if a big strong guy put his shoulder pad through your jaw at 50 miles an hour.

The NFL’s proposed new rules about how to tackle (slightly more) safely, in a way that might reduce brain trauma, are being criticized heavily right now, with people often saying some variant of, “You might as well play flag football instead.” Which, I guess that’s true, but I also guess the argument boils down to part of people’s enjoyment of the sport coming from knowing people are ruining their own lives to play it for our enjoyment.

Yes, every NFL player or NHL player enters that league knowing there’s an inherent risk; you’re accepting that risk in exchange for getting paid to play professional sports. But you can also make that argument for the workers who sign on to work in Amazon warehouses knowing they’re going to have to pee in bottles and work themselves to exhaustion.

Obviously the monetary compensation is significantly, drastically, extremely different (pro athletes are unionized, so that helps) but the idea is the same: Just as we like our two-day deliveries and don’t care all that much about the people being ground to dust by the systems in place to support them, we like our hockey to have a just-right chance of life-altering injury to its participants.

Could Amazon stand to cut Prime deliveries to three or even four days so that its employees can be, like, 10 percent safer? Yeah but then that spare phone charger cord you ordered would take an extra day or two to get there, so it’s impossible to say what’s better. Could the NHL stand to outlaw checking so guys don’t have 75-year-old brains by the time they’re 40? Yeah but then that’s one less highlights package show for NHL Network to show every two hours all summer long.

This doesn’t even get into the idea that less hitting-focused hockey improves the sport because it leads to more scoring. If you’re one of those people who bemoans how scoring is down from the 1980s — it’s held in more or less the same area of about 5 to 5.8 goals per game since the mid-90s — first of all, congrats on what I can only assume is a massive collection of Pearl Jam bootlegs. But second of all, if you take hitting out of the game scoring goes up.

That leads to the “might as well play flag football” argument, which in hockey terms is, “just an expensive game of shinny.” But it wouldn’t be like the All-Star Game, because something would still be on the line. Guys would still play hard, compete, etc., even without the expectation that they try to “finish their checks” in ways they don’t for a hung-over-on-a-Sunday-afternoon skate.

None but the truly misogynistic-and-proud-of-it set would say women’s hockey, in which body checks are illegal, would say high-level women’s hockey is not intense or that it’s a glorified shinny game. Now, arguments could be made that women’s hockey players have higher incidences of concussion than practitioners of the men’s side. That much is certainly true, but no one knows why. Is it physiological? Is it because women are more likely to report concussions while men are huge dumbasses who try to play through them? Is it because women “don’t know how to check right” and suffer more concussions as a result? Well, it’s probably not that last one.

At the end of the day we’re talking about an entertainment product here, and the NHL has almost certainly conducted the research necessary to determine that its fans prefer the game violent, which is why it keeps fighting and hitting as part of the sport. One assumes, then, that they’ve run the cost-benefit analysis and found that checking and fighting means more revenues than getting rid of them. I continue to be of the belief that all the fans who loudly proclaim they’d “stop watching hockey if (x, y, or z happens)” are totally full of crap; they’d grumble but they’d stick around.

If you remove the profit motive from it — that is, if you could magically guarantee the NHL makes just as much money with no hitting — one imagines you could get the league to institute all kinds of changes it steadfastly refuses to make today. Profit motive is, after all, what causes so many adverse working conditions, because every cent spent on worker protections is a cent that doesn’t go into owners’ pockets.

When it comes to fixing this concussions thing, which everyone acknowledges is a serious problem in sport writ large and the NHL specifically, it’s gotta be business as usual. Anyone who suggests there’s a better way is told that they’d ruin the thing they’re trying to fix. Almost everyone over the age of 40 — and a good chunk of those under it as well — falls right in line with the exact arguments you’d expect.

They’ve tried nothing and they’re all out of ideas, but they know for sure what won’t work.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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