Hockey has changed drastically over the past century. Goalies have been required to wear helmets, for example. Concussions are now a common occurrence, taking players out for most of the season, like Pittsburgh Penguins superstar forward Sidney Crosby’s head injury that forced him to miss half of an 82-game season in 2011.
But any player can be affected, and Hockey Canada has gone so far as to provide an online Concussion Prevention Resource Centre so players will understand the symptoms of a concussion and why it’s important to seek help. With Rule 48, which makes hits to the head illegal, the NHL is also ensuring that fewer players spend the season off the ice by disciplining players who go “head-hunting” with a seven-game suspension and a fine.
Though hockey has always been an aggressive sport, there are now more rules than ever in place to make the ice safer for players. The recent introduction of “hybrid icing” in the 2013/14 NHL season allows referees to blow the whistle before the puck is touched behind the opposing team’s red line after a dump-in. This saves players from racing to touch the puck, which in past seasons has sometimes ended in many players crashing into the end boards at high speeds and sustaining serious injuries.
With all these changes being made at the professional level, it was only a matter of time before safety precautions came to the non-professional hockey world. The University of Toronto has announced that its tri-campus hockey league will be making the switch from contact to non-contact hockey beginning next season, so players who have made body and hip checks a part of their game will have to re-strategize.
The switch has been met with disdain by various players in the league. “It allows for dirty players to get away with dirty plays,” says Kyle Kuczynski, a fourth-year political science major and captain of UTM’s tri-campus team.
“This year there’s a lot more scrums and cheap shots being thrown by players who can’t keep up the higher game tempo,” says Ben Gryschuk, a second-year CCIT major and goaltender for the Eagles. “There’s a lot of cheap shots being unnoticed by the refs.”
CBC Sports recently discussed whether taking contact out of hockey makes the game safer; a number of current NHL players were interviewed and CBC concluded that fighting actually makes the game safer. Several of the players agreed that preventing fighting between players will lead to a lot more dirty plays and cheap shots. In particular, players could expect a lot more slashes instead.
The elimination of fighting has been a hot subject of late and long debated in the NHL. European hockey leagues have worked to make fighting illegal—so much that players caught fighting can be ejected from games. Though the NHL won’t be drastically changing its rules and dropping fighting anytime soon, many players worry that the league will eventually see no other way to make the game safer than by outlawing fighting.
No matter the level, hockey without contact drastically changes the aesthetic of the game. “It definitely changes how you play the game,” says Charlie Foster, a second-year medical student. “Guys hold on to the puck longer. Before, they would move it up the ice because they’d be taking a hit.”
Though the tri-campus rules are ironclad at the moment, Kuczynski has offered suggestions for how the league could educate players on how to play contact hockey correctly.
“The emphasis should be on learning how to play. We have to teach guys how to take a hit and make a hit,” says Kuczynski. “We also have to teach guys not to make suicide passes: a pass where a player is supposed to look behind him to receive the puck, only to turn around to get hit by the opposing player in front. If a guy doesn’t want to play contact, there are lower levels without contact that they can play in. Without contact, we’re forced to use our sticks and fish for the puck. It just doesn’t feel like regular hockey.”
As UTM and the NHL fight to play hockey the way they know how, fans are speaking up as well. “I think changing the rules would ruin the game,” says third-year English major Antonio Fernando. “It’s the way the sport is meant to be played, and it’s why many people love watching. Hockey without physical play just isn’t hockey.”