Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ooo, free NHL network... and squashing hockey stereotypes

I was delighted tonight to find out the NHL Network is having a "free preview" week. I don't know if I stumbled upon this treat mid-week or if it's just starting, but either way, nice little surprise. (Yes, yes, I know - *GASP*, not already subscribed?)

In checking out my cable company's offerings, I looked under "sports packs", and was kind of semi-insulted by their "Premiere Sports Pack" offering. The wording of the package seems to infer any sports fan MUST be football-crazy. The copy for their selling points starts out with "Two words: NFL Network."

Here's two words for you, cable company: Football sucks. Ok, maybe "sucks" is a little strong, but "I neither understand nor care to watch football, despite years of attempting to fathom the game" just doesn't have the same ring to it. (See? I'm enough of a sports fan that I was even willing to attempt to understand football.) I could vent various opinions about football, starting with the fact that it is way over-complicated for a game where the basic point is to put the ball at the other end of the field, but the primary reason I don't like the game - and this will shock non-hockey fans - is that I think it's just too violent. I know, a hockey fan calling football "violent" - crazy, right? No. Football is way more violent than hockey. Even the dude I sat next to at the hockey game last night, who was seeing only his second hockey game ever, said he thought football was way more violent than hockey.

I was also a little boggled by my cable company's selling point for the "Versus" channel, which stated "Alternative sports coverage on Versus, including hockey, bull riding, hunting and fishing, and World Extreme Cagefighting." Are they actually calling hockey "alternative", and lumping it into the same category as yawner sports like fishing and crazy sports like bullriding and WEC?

Jeez, no wonder hockey has an image problem. Lumping it in with cage fighting? Really?

Let's put to rest the idea that hockey is SO violent that it's setting some kind of bar for crazy. Yes, the NHL ruled against head shots this week, but you know what, that is long overdue. A hockey rink is not a boxing ring. Checking is part of the acceptable dangers of the game; attempting to knock somebody out cold should not be.

The mental image that many non-fans have of hockey players is, sadly, the idea that all hockey players have broken noses, missing teeth and a face constantly full of blood and bruises. Maybe thirty years ago, sure.

As a puck can easily reach velocities of up to 120 MPH, and hit teeth (or faces or skulls) with an impact force of 1,250 pounds, it is far from surprising that modern hockey players - pro and amateur alike - use a variety of safety equipment, including padding over much of their body, as well as helmets, face masks and mouthguards. (After all, what good is your $5M contract if you don't protect yourself to enjoy it?)

The first NHL goalie to wear a mask full time was Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens, starting on November 1, 1959. Amazingly, before that time, it was not required equipment, and his coach actually resisted the idea at first, concerned that it would cut down on his vision. Plante went on to have a major winning streak, and resistance to his wearing the mask was dropped. The last goalie not to wear protective head equipment in a game was Andy Brown, who last played for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1974. (He was with the Detroit Red Wings prior to the Penguins.)

The most famous image of a goalie and his mask:
Canadian artist Ken Danby's "At the Crease", 1972

The goalie mask went on to be a well-recognized symbol for hockey, of course, although it evolved from the face-only fiberglass plate into a combination helmet/face cage in the 1970s.

Today, most goalies wear a sleek helmet made from carbon fiber, or a fiberglass and kevlar mix. Professional goalies frequently have their helmets painted with artwork that reflects their team, their personal style, or simply looks cool. For example, those who watched the 2010 Olympics games may have noticed that the Canadian goalie started out with a helmet decorated with a maple leaf motif, but later switched to a helmet painted with a lumberjack, the original mascot for the Canucks.

Helmets did not used to be mandatory equipment for the rest of the players, either, until an NHL ruling in August of 1979. If you watch tapes of games from the 1970s or earlier, you'll see that many players didn't wear helmets - and needless to say, broken noses and blackened eyes were far more prevalent in those days. Players who signed contracts prior to June 1, 1979, were allowed, if they desired, to sign waivers to allow them to play without a helmet.

Minnesota North Star player Bill Masterton was playing in a game on January 13, 1968, when he was hit by two players from the Oakland Seals team; his head hit the ice hard. Although a team of doctors worked some 30 hours to save his life, he died of what was classified as "massive brain injury". It is amazing that it took the NHL another eleven years to mandate the use of helmets, but by the time the rule was instituted, the majority of players were already wearing them.

While many players use either a clear plastic visor or face guard, or the older-style face cage, there are a small percentage of players who play without the added protection of face gear. However, that number is shrinking, and so you see far less of the stereotypical, face-beaten-in look among hockey players.

The first known mouthguard was developed in 1890, but it was a Canadian dentist who helped develop the modern mouthguard as we know it today. Arthur Wood was also a part-time hockey coach who saw too many teeth injuries in his practice and decided to do something about it.

Not surprisingly, since hockey players are looking less like roadkill, the first female-orientated fan club, the Washington Capitals' "Club Scarlet", was created in 2009. I have mixed opinions about this, but I think I'll save that for my rants about puck bunnies. ;)

Anyway, don't forget to check out the free NHL Network this week!

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