|Monday, October 8
Updated: October 15, 1:36 PM ET
Safety measures should be more than suggestions
By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com
It's as if this is elementary school and the woman standing at the blackboard is a meek student teacher, left alone with the children for the first time.
It's time for the teacher to take the decisive step. She needs to turn around, extend her arm as far as it can go, reach out with her long, painted fingernails -- and scrape them down the blackboard.
That'll get their attention.
There are two separate issues involved here, in the discussion of NHL standards. One is the actual playing rules themselves, the other is the enforcement of equipment standards.
Last week, the league released the recommendations issued by its Injury Analysis Panel, headed by former goaltender Dave Dryden. The quibble here is not with the recommendations, which were eminently sensible -- if not earthshaking. It's that continuing plaintive tone: Come on, children, PLEASE!?
Take chinstraps, PLEASE.
If Donald Brashear had his chinstrap engaged, the Marty McSorley incident might not have been as ugly. No question, when Brashear's helmet slid as he hit the ice, it worsened the damage -- both to the game and Brashear's noggin. That doesn't lessen the disgraceful nature of McSorley's action, and he deserved all the condemnation he received. But it illustrated the danger of a lose chinstrap -- it lessens the effectiveness of the helmet.
So now the NHL says it will, ahem, require players to use the blasted chinstrap the way they're supposed to. The on-ice officials, as if they don't have enough else to do, are charged to make sure this standard is enforced.
Uh, huh; yeah right.
The officials are going to be looking for this? They shouldn't have to. Everyone, from owners to trainers to fathers and the most powerful forces of all, agents and the players' association, should be scraping their fingernails down the blackboard, telling these guys to do it. And the players should be smart enough to do it, without being asked.
And the NHL also is encouraging all players to wear visors. It's funny, isn't it, how only a few Neanderthals still are portraying this as the equivalent of putting on a skirt or doing a Richard Simmons imitation on the ice? At least they don't try to tell us that Doug Wilson and Craig MacTavish were the last real men in the NHL. At least the hard-core traditionalist position now is far more defensible -- that if a player wears a visor, and he hides behind it in terms of accountability for cheap shots, that's worthy of derisive condemnation.
Yet even Bryan Berard has taken the position that the visor issue has to be left up to each player's discretion, and it comes down to this: The NHLPA would object! Golly, some players might balk! There might even be lawsuits!
Visors should be mandatory. As soon as possible. And if the NHLPA balks or blusters, or tries to use its acquiescence as a bargaining chip, shame on it.
Whether Warren should have been suspended is debatable. The point, however, is this: Without being suspended, and thus forfeiting pay, the maximum amount an NHL player can been fined under the collective bargaining agreement is $1,000.
Every season, the NHL makes decisive pronouncements about rules enforcement and other related issues, and some of us even have believed them. Obstruction will be called -- and it is. Often. For about, figuratively speaking, six minutes. Stick infractions will be called, and they are. Until Halloween. Guys, hits to the head area will be dealt with harshly, and come on, don't hit anyone from behind!
The issue that remains inherent in all these recommendations about protecting players, investments in talent and the product itself is respect.
Until the players respect each other and respect their game enough to play with the edge necessary in the sport, but not cross it into bush-league carelessness, these sort of pronouncements will keep coming -- but not really mean all that much, both because they aren't enforced ruthlessly enough and the players themselves come up short in this issue of professionalism.
The term "enforcement" even can carry a component of honor that permeates the dressing rooms and the fraternities themselves. The enforcement of the standards of honor shouldn't have to be left to the code, with Stu Grimson fighting Krzysztof Oliwa or Donald Brashear tangling with Scott Parker. It should be more pervasive than that, among the guys who never -- for whatever reason -- drop the gloves.
The NHL's biggest problem in a lot of this is that it erodes its own credibility by huffing and puffing about what it is going to do, then doesn't back it up with consistent, relentless action. The league needs to prove it means what it says, by continuing to enforce the crackdown on stick fouls, by treating the cheap shots and hits from behind as worthy of expensive condemnation, and making those obstruction calls when the attempt is being made to turn the ice into rush hour on a subway station stairway.
When the coaches and players whine -- gee, isn't this getting a little ridiculous? -- the league needs to scrape its fingernails down the blackboard again and say this is the way it's going to be . . . and it's up to the smart to adjust.
Terry Frei of The Denver Post is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His feedback email address is ChipHilton23@hotmail.com.