Thursday, November 12, 2009

The NHL doesn't need another Bill Masterton

On January 13, 1968, four minutes into a game against the Oakland Seals, the North Stars' Bill Masterton was carrying the puck into the Seals' zone. Shortly after completing a pass to teammate Wayne Connelly, he was checked by Oakland's Larry Cahan and Ron Harris and fell backwards onto the ice head-first. Masterton sustained a massive brain hemorrhage and died two days later.

His death brought about rule changes including mandatory helmets. But like every change in hockey, there are always unforeseen consequences. When players began using slapshots, goalies responded by wearing masks. Mandatory helmets allowed players to carry their sticks higher without the fear of whacking someone in the head. When leather elbow and shoulder pads were replaced by molded plastic, players switched from hip checks to full body checks because the person throwing the check was better protected. And when obstruction was eliminated, defenders slowed down speeder puck carriers by trying to catch them with their head down - or in some cases by blind-siding them.

So you get hits like the one by Michael Liambas of the Erie Otters landed on Ben Fanelli of the Kitchener Rangers. The hit landed Fanelli in the hospital and might have killed him. It also earned Liambas a season-long suspension that turned out to be more controversial than the actual hit.

This is not an isolated incident. Players have been knocked silly since the start of the season by some very dangerous hits. The NHL has reacted by announcing a review of blind-sided hits. But rest assure, not much will be done because most NHL people are concerned that you will alter the game too much if you come down too hard on hits to the head. The real problem is the culture the dominates the sport. There is little respect for opposing players today which contributes to reckless and dangerous plays. I'm not so sure that further rule changes will do much to bring about an attitude change in the NHL. The NHL doesn't need another Bill Masterton.