How Women’s Lacrosse Might Help Protect NHL Players

Women's Lacrosse v. Cor Jesu
Photo by micdsphotos

Today’s Times has an interesting piece about women’s lacrosse:

Although some safety advocates call for head protection in women’s lacrosse, almost everyone involved in the sport has said that its current ban on helmets for everyone but goaltenders is actually the safest approach.

People around women’s lacrosse say helmets might make the players reckless. It’s an interesting thought for the NHL to consider: does safety-producing equipment give players a less personal stake in safety and thus less likely to create their own safety?

First, a few caveats. There’s no head contact allowed in female lacrosse. In fact, you can’t even touch anyone within seven inches of their head. Nor can you shoot with a defender in front of you. So women’s lacrosse is very different from hockey.

And women’s lacrosse sees its fair share of concussions: only about 15% less than the mandatory-helmeted male version.

The NHL knows it has a problem with dirty hits and headshots. It’s trying to fix the problem through officiating, which is proving complicated because there’s no single standard for punishment and because the league is considering intent as a factor in punishment. The league is having a tough time defining a “bad” hit because of all the factors involved in what makes a hit dirty or clean.

The women’s lacrosse people ignore all of those dirty/clean hit variables and instead bring up the interesting idea that violence in a sport is driven by factors besides the players themselves. What if more equipment makes players behave more recklessly?

It’s something the NHL needs to consider, since I believe the league is going to look at equipment changes to help protect players from each other on the ice. But if more equipment correlates with more violence, that move could actually put players in more danger.

Mark Moore wrote about hockey and equipment in his book, Saving the Game. His thought wasn’t necessarily that more equipment led to more recklessness, but rather that today’s equipment is too hard, protecting the player taking a hit but endangering the player delivering a hit.

Moore proposed re-examining hockey equipment, perhaps using less hard plastics to protect players.

As we see, though, player safety on the ice is a very, very complicated issue. It’s not just about telling players what’s illegal and what’s legal. And it’s not about putting the onus on officials to catch everything that happens.

Player behavior seems to be driven, at least in part, by their equipment. If more equipment makes players more reckless, the NHL needs to find another way to protect its players.

I’d love to see softer equipment, as Moore suggests, and smaller equipment, to help shrink the size of these already naturally gigantic players.

But more than that, I’d love to see the NHL pilot newer equipment in lower leagues, just to make sure it has the effect they think it will.

Don’t forget, the NHL is quite a few years into a culture of reckless hits, where in any given game, a player with his back to the play and his face to the glass is seen as fair game for a huge hit.

That culture will take years to change. Officiating will certainly help change the culture, but it’s still going to take some time.

To protect its players, the league has to start looking at all of the factors involved in dirty hits. As we see from women’s lacrosse, the problem is much bigger than telling players to stop and giving them more padding.