Monday, November 14, 2011

Around the Rink: Save Yourselves Edition

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

Two stories which occurred within the last week has spurred this first edition of Around the Rink for the 2011-12 season, and I wish they were the cause for celebration. But they're not.

The first, is the puck that Boston Bruins forward Daniel Paille took to the face in last week's 6-2 victory over the New York Islanders.

In the third period of that contest, Islanders defenseman Steve Staios wound up on a slap shot from the right point -- with a puck that had lain perfectly flat for him as it caromed off the boards -- and the full force of the blast caught Paille roughly 20 feet away and the disc hit him flush in the face.

And yes, Paille wore a shield.

Moreso than the actual "stand up and cover your face" aspect of the incident, what struck me as telling was that Paille, the former Buffalo Sabre who won a Cup with the B's back in June, was wearing a half-shield. The shield happened to be intact, but there was a distinct dark-crimson swath which stained the inside of the shield all the way up to the protective padding inside the helmet itself which normally protects the forehead.

So all the talk about making visors mandatory stemming from Chris Pronger's gruesome eye injury three weeks back was swiftly shunted aside, as usual, by actual reality. Paille's positioning made the shield absolutely useless because the angle of the shot made it possible for the path to intersect with flesh and bone.

Maybe the conversation of outrage should be of mandatory full-face protection, no? They do it in every level on up to the pros, either plexiglass or cage. Right. Except, with a full shield, the puck would have certainly shattered the plastic and created a bigger hazard with splintering.

In any case, Paille will miss roughly two more weeks following surgery to correct a broken nose and facial lacerations. Yes, it could have been worse, but could it have turned out better?

The second story was revealed today, and it is exponentially more somber. Sixteen-year-old Kyle Fundytus, an Edmonton native, was killed on Saturday when he blocked a shot with his throat.

I should clarify. He wasn't diving headfirst, but it seemed to play out like an unlucky coincidence that the puck struck such a sensitive area with lethal force. Of course, it's natural to want to talk about neck guards -- famously introduced by Hall-of-Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr of the Oilers in the 1980's -- but simple cloth or plastic wouldn't have saved the young man from what I gleaned in the story and other inquiries.

What I did know, is that accidents like the ones that befell Clint Malarchuk of the Buffalo Sabres in 1989 and Richard Zednik of Florida in 2008 were the impetus for neck-guard use. What I didn't know, is that like face protection, neck guards are mandatory for both sexes up through the minor leagues.

What I do know, and what I didn't need the CBC piece to tell me, is that the guards aren't designed to halt the blunt force of a stick or puck.

By the way, roughly 90 percent of the way through the article, you'll notice a quote from Emile Therien, former president of the Canada Safety Council. He's none other than the father of former NHLer and current Flyers radio commentator Chris Therien.

Therien, you may recall, had his own brush with mortality -- but he was the one responsible for someone else's life hanging in the balance.

On January 29, 2000, in an afternoon game at the Molson Centre against the Montreal Canadiens, Therien unloaded a shot from the left point. Intersecting the path of the shot was the neck of Habs forward Trent McCleary, who was sliding within five feet to block the chance. The force of the shot shattered McCleary's larynx, and left him minutes from death. Only the actions of team medical personnel, chief among them Dr. David Mulder, saved the player's life.

Could these outcomes have turned out better? Of course. All it takes is for players and coaches to once again realize that self-preservation is the best way to prove you'll do what it takes to win.

The Warrior Mentality

I can't pinpoint when exactly NHL players began taking every shift as the ice-driven equivalent of a Kamikaze mission, but it has to have come within the last 10 years. It definitely has taken hold since the league came back from its salary armageddon in 2005.

You're hard-pressed to see a period that passes without some incidence of sacrifice; whether it's an open-ice check, a blocked shot right in a forward's face, a run at the goaltender, a rush up ice which ends with the net off its moorings and a pile of bodies in the crease, or a shift skated at top speed in all zones, it's part and parcel of this new generation that they are asked to do, and will often execute, an action performed at a high level of momentum.

Alex Ovechkin is probably the most obvious example, being one of the league's Golden Children.

He plays the forward position with a reckless abandon that often borders on danger. That style causes great goals like the one where he passed the puck to himself off the boards at full speed and pirouetted away from a pair of Canadiens defensemen en route to a score almost three years ago. But it also creates an amped-up mindset which allows things like what should be a simple body check to an opponent become a concussion-worthy elbow to the head of a Lightning defender.

Skaters routinely throw themselves in harm's way -- and what galls me is they often do it face or feet-first -- when the puck is about to be unleashed at triple-digit speed. Why? There's one specific member of your team who has been trained to stop the puck, and has been given specialized equipment to do so effectively. What's the phsyical reward?

Montreal Canadiens HOF goalie Ken Dryden offered up a passage in his seminal book, The Game, about how players defined how to play in their own era -- with particular emphasis on his own position.

It read, in essence, that the puck is the enemy, not only because of its intended path to the net, but also for the risk one takes in trying to get in its way. Padding all over the body was a necessity to prevent serious injury from a shot, and the reason skaters chose not to take the risk was simply because they were not protected as well and in as many areas as the goaltenders.

These crease guardians often reacted in order to not get injured, and when a heavy shot -- such as the ones Bobby Hull or Reggie Leach perfected -- was released, it was best not to look too much like you were trying to avoid getting in the way altogether.

Shot blocking is an art. There's no dispute, and those of us who remember hockey the way it was played prior to this millennium know there was a certain kind of fool who did it. Brad Marsh was one, and he never just threw himself in the way. He had to calculate the intent of the shooter, how high the windup, how close he was to the puck, and also (since he did not wear a helmet for 99 percent of his career) which angle to take on the block.

Most often, it was with his feet and he rolled over onto his back to stop play. On occasion, he took some in the midsection or the leg, but mostly it was the rear end that cushioned the blow. But that was in 1985, when players looked more like people and didn't train as much and heavy wooden sticks took crucial MPH's off the speed of a shot.

Now, composite or totally-synthetic stick construction, coupled with the year-round, well-conditioned athlete has created a situation where there is too much danger to willingly take up the role of protecting your goalie from what he's there to do.

It doesn't seem to matter though. Advances in the lightness of padding, the ability for the pads to cover more of a player's body, and most importantly, the illusion that if you're not putting yourself at risk you're not helping the team, create a perfect storm.

And why not? After all, the way injuries decimate every roster forces fresh meat from the minor leagues to be called up. They are then sent back down when whatever player they stood in for recovers. It's a weird cycle that calls to mind Pink Floyd's "Us and Them," where the NHL coaches, acting as the generals in the tune, send their charges out to accomplish the impossible or be replaced.

But once upon a time, players weren't also paid very well. Injuries meant that your call-up replacement had the chance to supplant you on the roster if they played better, played harder, in their own audition. That meant your livelihood was at risk if you decided to stick out that leg in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Joe Watson and Bob Dailey had their careers ended because they suffered horrific broken legs after they went full-on to try and wipe out icing calls. Kurtis Foster was lucky to have his career resume recently after his femur was fractured.

Milan Lucic of Boston just rammed into Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller on Saturday night with an elbow high, when all he could have done was shove him aside and take the puck. Lucic wasn't suspended, but Buffalo's franchise goalie now has a concussion.

Where will it stop? Probably not until someone is actually killed. Until then, no reason not to push the envelope, to create a culture where the ability to play a healthy 82 games a year is grounds to call a player "soft."

The Winning Streak

During Mike Keenan's second year as head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, the club began the year pretty much like a house aflame. Aside from two odd one-goal home losses (to New Jersey on opening night and Quebec one week later), a two-goal loss on Long Island and a one-goal setback in Boston, they dominated the competition in the season's first two months.

Contained in that 19-4-0 start, was the euphoria of a 13-game winning streak undercut by the sadness of Pelle Lindbergh's death.

Twenty-six years ago tonight, the club and its fans mourned together at the Spectrum, as the defending-champion Edmonton Oilers came to town. An emotional 40-minute service, emceed by the late, great Gene Hart, preceded a spirited 5-3 Flyers victory which pushed the streak to 11 games -- tying a franchise record just set the previous March.

Thanks to the Oilers' breakdown in discipline at the end of the second period of a 1-1 game, Philly tallied four goals in the third and claimed victory. It was the 78th in Keenan's NHL career, and the first for Darren Jensen, who made 29 saves and largely tamed the high-octane Edmonton offense.

Jensen had to be called up from Hershey of the American Hockey League because backup Bob Froese was hit in the protective cup during practice earlier in the week and was unable to play. Adding to the list of coincidental groin-related events in that contest, was that Mark Howe scored the first goal of the game late in the first period by sliding a high shot under the screen of a leaping Dave Poulin. Howe later left with a hamstring issue.

The signature play in the rousing win came when Jensen closed up the five-hole to stop a short-handed breakaway by Edmonton's Dave Hunter. It wasn't the only time Jensen was challenged, but it was a game-saver as the Flyers clung to a 1-0 edge at that time.

It reached 12 straight two nights later in Hartford, and a still-standing mark of 13 the next night when the Islanders blew leads of 3-0 and 4-1 only to lose, 5-4 in overtime, when a shot from Murray Craven from behind the goal line ran up the stick of Billy Smith and hit the net.

And one more thing...

Ed Snider on Monday HOF inductee Mark Howe: "If a guy's good enough for the Hall of Fame, he's good enough to have his number retired."

Stay tuned.

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