Monday, November 14, 2011

Foes Before Bros

Staal did not realize whom he had leveled until after the play. Immediately after that game, Marc told Eric he was “upset” and “disappointed” at being hit like that. Marc missed a handful of games last season, although neither he nor the Rangers revealed he had sustained a concussion. Marc’s symptoms worsened over the summer, and he has not played this season. There is no timetable for his return. “It’s tough for him; it’s tough for me; it’s tough for everyone in the family.”
- Staal on Staal

I think this is the most interesting and illustrative of all the stories regarding the problem of concussions in the NHL. Yes, the sine qua non of NHL sales and marketing and golden boy-related marginalia hasn't played a game in 10 months due to a (2) concussion(s), and the daily updates regarding his condition and prognostications as to his return is one of the bigger storylines of the season thus far, and rightfully so. And, yes, what happened to Him is super important and instructive and can't be over emphasized enough and should probably have resulted in greater action by the league and its asvertisers et al., etc., but the bro on bro crime aspect of the Staals hit is just too good to ignore. Two of the more popular explanations of the increasing acts of brain musherry in the league are that players don't have enough respect for each other on the ice and that players put themselves in vulnerable positions. I think Eric's hit on Marc pretty clearly debunks both of those notions. This is the play:

More than the plain consanguinity of the participants, the particulars of their family - they are the eldest siblings of a sort of fairy tale-esque and notoriously close-knit Canadian hockey clan comprised of three NHL stars and a fourth brother in the minors, raised in a place called Thunder Bay where the family business is sod farming, and each with the blue-eyed, blond-hair, farm boy countenance that registers as good looking in a completely non-threatening and uninteresting way - make the hit and its fallout particularly sad or illuminating, depending on one's perspective.

As to the respect explanation, I think it's fairly self-evident that the Staals are not dirty players: while they may engage in some in-scrum pushing and face washing, they don't take many minor or major penalties, they don't do a lot of hitting, and I've never seen any of them do anything I'd consider maliciously violent. If "respect" is just a word to signify playing the game in a way that places a reasonable amount of concern for the safety and well-being of your opponents, then whatever respect the Staals have for their individual opponents should be and probably is dwarfed by the respect they have for each other. Nevertheless, Eric crushed Marc with an arguably clean hit. (Because that's the way the game is played, because if he doesn't, he'll hear it from his coaches, because it won't be penalized, because the players - due to enhanced training and shortened shifts - are basically flying around the ice at near full speed nearly all the time.)

And as to the victim's awareness or ability to protect himself, Marc Staal emerged last season as one of the elite shutdown defensemen in the game. If a player as skilled and adept as him at putting himself in the right position with the appropriate amount of control, balance, and vision can still let himself get hit with his head down like that, how much hope is there for the average player? Right now, the game is outrageously violent and dangerous, and it has to do with larger institutional and systemic issues more than individual or cultural failings. I hope Marc Staal gets better, but more than that, I hope the game becomes safer.

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