Commentators on hockey and hockey injuries almost invariably have long, complicated, histories with the sport and, as such, may overlook basic things that are more salient to relative newcomers like myself.  I started to take a somewhat serious interest in hockey only last year.  Prior to that, I was one of those people who, in an entire season, might watch just parts of a couple of games on television, if the hometown team was doing especially well or was on the brink of elimination.  I previously mentioned in this blog that I did once attend a parade in Montreal celebrating the Montreal Canadiens winning the Stanley Cup that year and, while I probably watched the final game (parts of it anyway), it’s unlikely I watched any other hockey game that year.  (I was then a serious McGill student, too busy for much television of any kind.)  That parade was a cultural phenomenon, and wasn’t just about hockey.  

 

A CRASH COURSE IN ICE-HOCKEY

Things changed last year when I registered for an on-line hockey pool sponsored by The Vancouver Sun newspaper.  Although, as I’ve also previously mentioned in this blog, I’ve entered a fair number of contests in the past couple of years, I’d never before been in a hockey pool, or a sports pool of any kind.  Watching professional male sports teams compete had never been my thing, and I figured I didn’t know enough about the subject to stand a chance of winning, so being in any of those pools would have been a waste of time.  I initially entered the Sun‘s hockey pool last year because it was free to enter and because there were some relatively nice prizes up for grabs for early registration, regardless of how one fared in the actual pool–and I actually won one of those prizes, a $200 gift certificate good at any of the several restaurants and sports bars that are part of the Donnelly Group.  Once I was entered in the pool, I decided to play along for a while, with no real expectation of winning anything else.

This particular hockey pool was one of the most basic kinds (as I’ve learned in the past year, there are several different kinds of hockey pools) and involved, during the regular season, simply predicting the win/loss outcomes each week on those NHL games that involved Canadian teams.  During the regular season, Canadian teams played in about 25 games each week.  (In the playoff round, all games, including those with just American teams, were included in the pool.)  For each correct prediction, one earned a single point.  There were weekly prizes as well as monthly prizes.

For the first several weeks that I was in the pool, I never ranked better than about 300, and usually ranked at about 1000, in a pool of about 2500 players, only about 2000 of whom seemed to be active participants after the first week or two.  During that early period, I started to take a little more active interest in hockey than I usually did, watching parts of a few more games on television than I usually did and sometimes soliciting information from a male co-worker who watched all of all the games, and had done so for years, about the parts I hadn’t watched and those games I had missed entirely.  But I was still far from being hooked on hockey–even though the local team, the Vancouver Canucks, already was doing very well that year, and was generating much excitement locally.  

At about the Week 10 mark in the pool, never having ranked more than about 300 in the weekly rankings, I figured I had nothing to lose.  When I was picking my teams for the upcoming week, instead of actually selecting teams, I just clicked on the “Random” button on the team selection screen on the hockey pool website.   Astonishingly, I ended up winning the weekly pool that week, correctly ‘predicting’ 21 out of 25 or 26 games.  (I don’t recall the exact number of games.)  If only my luck were that good with randomly generated “lucky pick” lottery tickets, when serious cash winnings are at stake!  In the case of the hockey pool, I won a $100 gift certificate to be spent at a sports store specializing in hockey-related gear.  (With the gift certificate, I bought as Christmas presents kitschy Canucks pajamas for one of my sisters, that she really liked, for the kitsch and the comfort, and a non-team hoodie for her partner, who isn’t much into hockey, or kitsch, but who does jog.)  Besides winning the gift certificate, I had my name published in the sports section of The Vancouver Sun, for a second time, as a winner in their ongoing hockey pool.  (The first time was just for winning the early registration prize, but my name was published in the sports section, in conjunction with hockey, all the same.) 

After winning the hockey pool that week, based on sheer, statistically improbable, luck, and having my name published in the sports section of Vancouver’s major newspaper for a second time, I figured I should become more knowledgable about Canada’s national sport, about which I may have, quite undeservedly, acquired a reputation as being something of an expert.  (A lot of my Arts friends and acquaintances, if they ever opened the sports section and came across my name, may have been dumbfounded.)  Also, since I’d now won the weekly hockey pool once, if only through luck, another weekly win, or even a monthly win, seemed more within reach, if I became more knowledgeable about the game.  (I realized my chances of winning a second week by again clicking on “Random” were infinitesimal.) 

I started to watch more televised hockey games, often in their entirely.  Watching more games, with the aim of predicting winners and losers, and then knowing little about the fine points of the game, I focussed on the one variable that struck me the most: the average speed at which the skaters on a team skated.  (There was nothing scientific about my calculations.  I just eyeballed the skaters on my TV screen.)  At first, I saw speed only as an advantage, reasoning that a faster team could generally outmaneuver a slower team and thereby make more goals, and also have greater success in preventing goals made against them (assuming the team had a reasonably good goalie, course).  Focussing on the single variable of speed, my actual predictions became somewhat better, although I was still nowhere near the top of the weekly rankings in my hockey pool.  (The New York Rangers and Nashville got my votes based on speed and, while both teams went through some good stretches, they weren’t reliable.)

Besides watching more televised games, I submitted myself to a serious (or at least semi-serious) reading regime, reading everything that came my way about ice-hockey, including newspaper and magazine articles that I formerly would have ignored, as well as a couple of books I came across in the library, including a book written a few years ago by the Globe and Mail sportswriter Bruce Dowbiggen: The Meaning of Puck: How Hockey Explains Modern CanadaDowbiggen’s book consists largely of a historical chronicle of hockey in Canada, beginning with how the sport came into being and the conditions under which the first games were played, and how those conditions evolved over the years.  

Thinking about changes in those conditions, and focussing on ice-skating speed to help me make my hockey pool picks, and inevitably thinking about injuries in current NHL hockey as I followed the sport more closely, I started to make some connections.

 

  INCREASED SKATING SPEED AND
ITS POSSIBLE RELATIONSHIP TO HOCKEY INJURIES

I have a theory that NHL players generally are skating faster than they have ever done in the past, and that these faster speeds, in combination with NHL hockey continuing to be a full-contact sport, are a major contributor to today’s hockey injuries, including concussions. 

A scientific analysis of differences in skating speeds among today’s NHL players and those from the past is beyond the scope of this blog post.  However, simple reasoning would suggest that average skating speed generally has greatly increased since the NHL was formed in 1917, due to changes in four main areas: ice conditions; hockey skates; the fitness level of players; and the amount of ice-time time that individual players have in individual games.  At least a full book chapter probably could be devoted to each of these subjects; but, for my present purposes, the following brief comments will suffice.

The biggest change in ice conditions for ice-hockey in Canada was pre-NHL, when the sport shifted from being an exclusively outdoor sport to being mainly an indoor sport.  The first organized indoor game was played in Montreal, in 1875.  Perhaps in the very early years of the NHL, a fair number of regulation games were played outdoors.  (This information probably is available somewhere, but I haven’t found it.)   However, with the exception of the one annual Winter Classic game, for many decades, all regulation NHL games have been played indoors.  Considering just indoor rinks, ice conditions vary to some extent from rink to rink, depending mainly on temperature; but, in recent decades, with the introduction of professional ice-makers, greater consistency has been achieved, with the ice now kept hard, and fast, at most rinks, most of the time.

My very basic research concerning the evolution of hockey skates indicates that, since the first skates were invented and patented in Nova Scotia in 1866, hockey skates have undergone significant changes.  These changes include wider blades that skate faster than blades used in the past.  In old television footage from hockey games in the ’60s and ’70s, many of the players seem to be using a much choppier skating style than is now prevalent among NHL players, a difference which is likely due at least in part to differences in the hockey skates used by NHLers then and now.  (Another probable factor is a shift in skating style itself, irrespective of the skates used, to maximize performance.)

Regarding the fitness level of players, probably due largely to major increases in recent decades in the salaries of NHL players, earning a spot on an NHL team has become much more competitive.  Only in recent decades have NHL players been expected to maintain a very high level of overall physical fitness–comparable to the fitness levels of athletes in the most demanding of other sports.  Not too many years ago, many professional hockey players apparently still smoked, and players commonly had a smoke between periods; but this is no longer the case.  (A television hockey commentator, I’ve forgotten who now, mentioned this as an aside.)  Also, with the major increase in NHL salaries in recent decades, it’s likely that the NHL now attracts more highly gifted athletes, who could have had great success in other professional sports, or had lucrative careers other than in sports.

Turning to ice-time, in the very early days of NHL hockey, most players were on the ice through the entire game, or virtually the entire game.  In the early 1930s, NHL hockey transitioned from being a game played by six players to being a game with various ‘lines’, and transitions on the fly.  In 1932, average ice time  already had declined to less than 23 minutes per game, which would seem to be roughly the same as the average ice-time played by today’s NHL players.  According to an answer posted on Wiki Answers about current NHL ice-time, by someone who seems to know NHL hockey well, “The average time on ice for a hockey player in one game … anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.  Usually the better defencemen spend around 25-30 minutes on the ice each night, but average forwards usually spend around 20-25 minutes.”  It also is worthy of note that, in the current NHL game, an average shift lasts only about 45 seconds, and only in exceptional cases does a shift last as long as 90 seconds.  Due to the basic fact that people get physically exhausted when they exert themselves over prolonged periods, a player who spends relatively little time on the ice, and whose overall ice-time is broken down into small segments, is likely to generally skate faster than a player who spends more time on the ice, and with fewer breaks–assuming, of course, their roles in the game are similar.  

Back in the 1930s, a greater skating speed associated with less ice-time, and more breaks, for individual players, probably significantly enhanced NHL hockey, making it more exciting, but without making it overly dangerous; however, in our current age, with various other factors contributing to greater speed–including improved ice conditions and hockey skates, and better player fitness–maybe ice-time needs to be reconsidered.  A NHL player skating at full-capacity who is skating on fast ice, wearing the most technologically advanced of today’s hockey skates, and who is in top physical condition, stands a much greater chance of inflicting serious harm on other players, intentionally or unintentionally, or even on himself, than a player skating at full-capacity on slow ice, wearing slow skates, who is not in good physical condition–and who may be a heavy cigarette smoker to boot.  It’s like developments in the alpine sport of luge: an activity that is generally safe at relatively low speeds can, as we learned from the luge event in the 2010 Winter Olympics, be catastrophically dangerous beyond certain speed thresholds.

  

 SLOWING DOWN THE GAME

If NHL hockey is to remain a full-contact sport–and I happen to agree with Don Cherry that it should remain such–and if we wish to reduce serious injuries, including concussions, it seems that steps should be taken to reduce players’ skating speed somewhat, without changing the game as we know it. 

One possibility that is unlikely to catch on, but that is amusing to consider, is loading weights on players as part of their penalties for certain infractions, like weights are loaded on race-horses in certain situations.  The weights on the hockey players would have the basic function of slowing them down.  For example, an infraction involving ramming another player overly hard, without causing a serious injury, could earn both a 2-minute penalty and 20 pounds in penalty weight.  Regarding the material used to add the extra poundage, since metal weights, wherever they were situated on the players, could be used as, or inadvertently become, lethal weapons, a soft and squishy, but also relatively heavy, substance, would seem to be best–although it’s unlikely NHL players would take well to strapping on modified colostomy bags before they stepped on the ice.

Another, somewhat more realistic, possibility is to modify the skates used by NHL players to reduce their skating speed–other than simply loading down their skates with encapsulated blubber (or whatever).  I suspect that closely monitoring the skates used by NHL players would be difficult, and expensive; however, I’m not ready to dismiss modifications to hockey skates as part of the solution to the excessive speeds of today’s professional hockey players, relative to the game that they are playing.

Another possibility, that seems to be the most robust–and realistic–of all the possibilities I’ve been able to come up with is to modify certain rules of the game, so that individual players are required to spend more time on the ice, and with fewer breaks, than is now the case–even to the point where they are sometimes required to play when they are plum tuckered out.  One rule that could be reconsidered is that concerning the maximum number of players that an NHL team can ‘dress’ for a game.  Currently, the maximum number of players that an NHL team can ‘dress’ is 20: maybe that should be reduced, perhaps to 15.  Another possible modification is to mandate a minimum length for a single shift, of perhaps 2 full minutes. 

Besides slowing down NHL games somewhat, to a somewhat safer average speed, requiring that individual NHL players spend more time on the ice is likely to shift the emphasis in NHL hockey to player endurance, as well as versatility–which are qualities that I believe spectators would appreciate, at least as much, if not more than, raw speed. 

 

CONCLUSION

 

Through the first part of the second half of last year’s hockey season, when I believed greater average skating speed was only an asset to a hockey team, my weekly rankings in the Sun‘s hockey pool remained relatively constant, in the 150 to 200 range.  Once I abandoned that preconception, and realized that greater speed also could be a liability for individual hockey players, their teams, and even for NHL hockey as a whole, my weekly rankings started to climb.  (By now, I knew enough about hockey to also consider a few more variables when I was making my predictions.)  

For Week 22 of the pool, I was again THE WINNER, this time without resorting to the “Random” button.  I won another $100 gift certificate for use at the sports store specializing in hockey gear and, once again, my name was published in the sports section of The Vancouver Sun as a weekly winner in their hockey pool.  (See above.  I am not making this up!)  This time, I felt less embarrassed, and even quite proud, about my name being in the paper because, this time, I had won fair and square.  I used my second $100 gift certificate to buy myself a Canucks jersey, that I wore on Canucks game days during the Canucks’ run for the Stanley Cup.  

This season, I haven’t followed hockey as closely as I generally did last season.  (I followed the game more closely after I won the pool the first time than I did before that win.)  The Vancouver Sun didn’t have an on-line hockey pool this season, instead running a football pool during the football season, that overlapped with the hockey season.  (Since there weren’t any prizes for just registering for the football pool, I didn’t participate in the football pool either.)  Also, following hockey closely takes a lot of time, and much of my free time now is spent using my new iPad–including working on this blog.  (I won the iPad, too, but that win had nothing to do with hockey.)  Still, I kept an eye on our Canucks.  Although they seemed to have a problem scoring this season, they were again Presidents’ Trophy winners for having the best regular season record, and I expected them to at least make it through the first round of the playoffs.  Instead, they lost four games to one in that first round to Los Angeles. 

If Daniel Sedin, the top scorer for the Canucks, had played in the first three games of the first playoff round, all of which the Canucks lost to LA, the outcome likely would have been different.  Unfortunately, Sedin was out with a concussion.  In one of the last games of the Canucks regular season, against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Blackhawks’ defenceman, Duncan Keith, elbowed Sedin in the head, in retaliation for a hit Sedin apparently inadvertently made on Keith in a previous game.  (Sedin’s hit seemed relatively minor, and didn’t even receive a penalty.)  If the players had been skating a little more slowly, a hit like the hit that Sedin made was unlikely to have had the impact that it did–on Keith, Sedin himself, the Canucks team, and so on.

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