Sports

The NHL Wouldn't Lose Fans By Banning Hits to the Head

The NHL has treated fans like shit for decades and they always come back. Changing a rule to protect players and make the game more skill-based isn't pushing anyone away.
May 3, 2018, 5:42pm
Photo by John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

A sports league in 2018 that doesn't take every possible measure to remove head hits from its game is like finding a commercial airline that still permits smoking on flights, only the airline caters to pregnant women. When people point out that with all the information available in our modern times, perhaps the airline should do what it can to discourage pregnant women from smoking, there is somehow pushback from airline executives and fans of the airline.

"Hey, if you don't like pregnant women smoking, maybe find another airline to like."

"Science remains divided on what smoking does to fetuses and we don't want to change something a lot of people love about our airline until we get all the evidence."

"Passengers know the risks when they sign up for these flights. If they didn't want to risk cancer and birth defects, they should have flown United."

"After reviewing the in-flight footage, the video shows the woman in row 24, seat C moved her head into the direction of the oncoming cigarette at the last moment, making it impossible for her unborn child to avoid the nicotine. Therefore, she will be allowed to fly and smoke for her next flight."

Logic bounces off the NHL the way brains bounce off skulls as a result of predatory Tom Wilson hits, so it's impossible to appeal to the league to remove all head hits from the sport with that tactic. Like any corporation that has billions of dollars in revenue, the NHL needs to be scared into doing something with the threat of financial loss.

You'd think a pending concussion lawsuit would do that but the NHL still refuses to ban all hits to the head and the reason is simple—the league's afraid that it will lose its core fan base, mouth-breathing dudes who can't maintain an erection unless there's a faint possibility of seeing someone slip into a coma during a hockey game. Hockey is for tough men, not soft babies, and if there isn't the potential to see a player have a seizure on the ice, they say they'll take their money elsewhere, which I assume is international waters to bet on fights between endangered baby animals.

There is no sport where playing with injuries is so celebrated like it is in hockey. It happens in football, too, but you'd swear Sean Couturier playing with a torn MCL in this year's playoffs made him a troop. People toss around words like "warrior" when a guy plays through an injury, and with the NHL's identity so tied up in that bullshit, the league is afraid tearing that down will bring the league itself down with it.

I'm here to tell you otherwise. There's nothing to worry about, NHL. All those fans with Twitter avatars that are selfies from inside cars, team logos or action shots of athletes who threaten to take their money elsewhere are completely and utterly full of shit.

The NHL could adopt the international rules for head contact tomorrow and nobody would go anywhere. The NHL should call the bluff of every idiot that thinks a sport can't survive without reducing the potential for brain injuries. They will fold. You will win and probably even increase your fan base.

The rule for head contact from the IIHF is here and this is the first part of it: "There is no such thing as a clean hit to the head. Whether accidental or intentional, every direct hit to the head or neck of an opponent will be penalized." There are some exceptions that seem to defeat the purpose of the first rule—"the ninth rule of Fight Club is if someone else brings Fight Club up first, talk about it all you want"—but the NHL could easily remove those exceptions without any problems.

I have a hard time getting into the damaged brain of a fan or NHL executive or Hockey Man that has a problem with this being the rule, so I will do my best to channel their disagreements with this becoming the new standard in the NHL immediately.

Hockey Man: Even if you change the rule, you will still have hits like the ones Tom Wilson delivered to Brian Dumoulin and Zach Aston-Reese.

Me: Yeah, but they would happen far less frequently. If there is a no-tolerance rule on head hits, players like Tom Wilson will have to change their game. You can make a case the hit on Dumoulin would still happen, because Wilson's hit was more about him delivering back pressure on a player that jammed the breaks to avoid a hit from the front. But players like Wilson would be far less likely to attempt kill shots in the open ice, the place where most of these hits happen. If Wilson's brain is retrained, he's not leaning the shoulder into Dumoulin during that awkward play; he's making himself smaller to avoid the potentially dangerous contact.

The hit on Aston-Reese does not exist either because Wilson was suspended for the Dumoulin hit or because Wilson would have to show restraint.

Fan: Nobody wants to watch games like this. You can't take physicality out of hockey.

Me: You know where they use these head contact rules? The Olympics! You know who loves Olympic hockey? Everyone! Literally, everyone. Olympic hockey is ice cream. The only people that don't like ice cream are the lactose intolerant and even then they like ice cream but just can't have any. Olympic hockey (when the NHL goes) is the best hockey because it features the best hockey players on the planet (you will never find Tom Wilson at the Olympics) doing cool hockey things, and not a single person walks away from an Olympic game thinking, "Yeah, the skill was sublime, the ability jaw-dropping, but I would have liked to have seen a couple concussions."

It doesn't mean you can't put a hip into a guy along the boards or protect the front of the net; it just means you need to accept there could be consequences if you want to catch a guy carrying the puck across the blue line. Victim-blaming is also way more prevalent in the NHL than any other sport. Skating with your head down—one of the IIHF caveats to its head shot rule—because you're trying to control the puck doesn't mean you deserve brain damage. SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO LOOK DOWN IN HOCKEY!

While you can't prevent Tom Wilson types from playing in the NHL, changing the rules forces Tom Wilsons to be less Tom Wilsonish and also reduces the number of Tom Wilsons in the league, because players like that will have to either change or get the fuck out. Barry Trotz had to sit at a podium after Game 3 and talk about Wilson like the dad of a mass murderer refusing to face the truth about his son. "My Tommy? He's a mature young man! He's developing! A leader! I'd like you detectives to leave my home now!"

Trotz will sing a different tune when his team is killing a five-minute major and playing short a forward every other night because Wilson picks a guy's head for no reason.

Take away Wilson's hits the past two games. Do you really miss them? Are they that important to you? The fact that I had to spend a day thinking about this instead of appreciating Alex Ovechkin's ridiculous game-winning goal (as a result of another uncalled penalty against Tom Wilson) is annoying as hell. You would not miss Tom Wilson-type players and you would not miss the murderous hits those players attempt.

And you could still check. You just couldn't check the head. Why is this a problem?

NHL executive: Fans would be turned off if the NHL enforced strict head shot rules. They'd revolt. They'd leave us. There would be too much pushback.

Me: There is a very obvious reason NHL fans are full of shit when they say they'd stop watching hockey for this reason or any other—three times since 1995, the NHL told fans to fuck off by having three (THREE!) lockouts and each and every time, fans came crawling back. One lockout lasted a fucking year and fans still came back in droves. A year! We are five years removed from the last lockout and the NHL has never had more money. When the NHL came back after a year away in 2005, fans could not have bought tickets for that first game any faster. The NHL has treated fans like shit for decades and they always come back. Changing a rule to protect players and make the game more skill-based isn't pushing anyone away. It's ludicrous to even think it could be a thing.

And lockouts are only one of the many things NHL fans have shown they are willing to endure from this league. A terrible TV deal that results in games overlapping when they don't need to; goaltender interference reviews; offside reviews; stripping fans of All-Star voting rights; Kid Rock; The Guardian Project; Patrick Kane commercials, and the one indisputable piece of evidence that nobody can quit this stupid league:

If you can endure Pierre McGuire calling what seems like every playoff game for two months since 2005, you can endure a rule change that results in fewer monstrous hits in the name of safety.

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports CA.