It is human nature for people to be concerned when others get injured. However, I think that these emotions that prevent people from being objective when evaluating whether a hit is ‘clean’ or not, and frankly I find it extremely frustrating.
It is not entirely the fault of empathetic fans who can’t stomach an injury, the precedent was set by the NHL. Specifically, the structure of the high-sticking penalty, whereby if blood is drawn a minor is upgraded to a double-minor, laid the groundwork for this problem. At the most fundamental level, this rule does not make sense because blood is not necessarily (and in many cases is simply not) correlated with the seriousness of an injury. By upgrading or downgrading a penalty based on ‘visible blood flow’ the NHL has effectively indicated that injury will dictate how illegal a player’s actions are and not necessarily the actions themselves. Importantly, this takes the control away from the player and into the hands of chance, which to any rational human does not make sense.
The chance of an injury occurring can be determined by the the interaction of eight variables (outlined below); consider this a simplified model for the purposes of discussion.
Chance of Injury = [(velocity of player A)*(mass of player A)*(position of player A)*(individual differences in player A anatomy)]*[(velocity of player B)*(mass of player B)*(position of player B)*(individual differences in player B anatomy)]
Assuming normal distribution of each of these variables (as would be anticipated) it is quite plausible that these could combine to create an injurious event. Furthermore, given that athletes are getting faster (due to advances in training and nutrition) and that one-quarter of these variables are velocity related, it is not surprising that we are seeing a rise in the frequency and severity of injuries.
Most importantly however I want to draw attention to the variable ‘individual differences in player anatomy’. This variable reflects how prone a given player (or part of a player) is to injury. For example, lets take Eric Lindros who because of his upbringing (nurture) and genetics (nature) was extremely prone to concussions and Alex Ovechkin who because of those same factors (nature and nurture) is not as injury prone (Ovechkin has only missed 1 game in 4 years due to injury). Assume both players, who are approximately 240 lbs, are skating at the same speed and exposed to the same border-line illegal open-ice hit by Chris Pronger. The result: Eric Lindros gets a concussion and Alex Ovechkin does not (and probably snipes 3 more goals). All variables are the same in this scenario except ‘individual differences in player anatomy’ (Ovechkin vs. Lindros). I can’t help but think that in this scenario two things would happen: (1) Pronger would be suspended for the hit on Lindros and not for the hit on Ovechkin; (2) There would be an outcry resulting from the Lindros injury whereas the Ovechkin hit might not even make the 2 minute game highlights on ESPN.
The problem with this is simple: the NHL (and NHL fans alike) have made the key metric for deciding whether a hit is ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ a variable that an ‘attacking player’ has NO CONTROL over. It is a standard business practice to base pay incentives on factors that people have control over, similarly, it only makes sense to punish a player (or employee) based on something that is in their control.
To be clear, I am not advocating for injuries in hockey, in fact I would be in favor of rule changes going forward to ensure that injuries stopped determining whether a hit is legal or not. If injuries are a concern (as evaluated by the NHLPA – those who play the game) then there should be a re-structuring of what makes a hit illegal. For example, making it illegal to hit a player while in a vulnerable position could be an option. One suggestion I would have around this would be that it not be an in-game penalty, but be evaluated after the game with proper footage and vantage point (but NOT medical records) so that an objective decision can be made.
Although the NHL has been better as of late in eliminating the ‘injury’ factor from determining suspensions (e.g. Booth hit) the system is not where it needs to be. At the end of the day It’s either a clean hit or not. If the NHL is uncomfortable with the increased frequency and severity of injuries they should change the rules and stop punishing players for things that they don’t have control over.