Player Safety Begins with Control

Lemieux in a pre-game ceremony before the Pittsburgh Penguins take on the New York Islanders in the final regular-season home game in the history of 48-year-old Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Penguins went onto win 7-3.

I have one major objection to Mario Lemieux’s plan to fine teams whose players are suspended.

Lemieux says his plan would make teams accountable for the actions of their players. And that’s the problem. The league needs to make players accountable for their own actions.

I’m reading H.A. Dorfman’s The Mental ABC’s of Pitching (because I genuinely feel I have a decent shot to make the Mets’ rotation this year). One of the book’s recurring themes is that pitchers fail when they aren’t fully engaged and surrender to external factors. Like a pitcher who’s allowed runners shouldn’t give up or rush to get out of the inning. Instead, she should concentrate on her next pitch and follow her game plan. By staying tethered both to the game and the game plan, the pitcher is usually able to find success. According to Dorfman, pitchers often fail when they mentally check-out, subsequently losing control:

Pitchers have told me they have lost control—of thoughts, muscles, and the strike zone—to circumstance and surroundings in a game. But they do not lose control to them. They were influened by events and environment; they lost control because of the them. But they also lost control because they allowed their responses to these factors to affect them in a way that forfeited control. The final responsibility was—and remains—theirs. (emphasis original)

One could say most of the NHL headshot problem is the result of two parties losing control: the player throwing the bad hit and the player who put himself in a position to take the hit. Lemieux’s plan sends the message that ultimately players aren’t responsible for their actions, because under Lemieux’s plan, the teams are accepting responsibility for the actions of their players.

All that does, though, is further disconnect players from the game. It turns them into chess pieces who aren’t in control of their own actions.

If the league really wants to protect its players, it’s got to make players feel both responsible for their own actions and in control of their actions. It can’t just focus on questionable hits, though. It needs to also focus on training players to constantly be aware of their on-ice position. By being aware of their position, players are less likely to be vulnerable.

Players need to learn to regain control on the ice. The game has gotten so fast that it seems all many players have time to do is react to what’s going on. But a bunch of huge guys skating around at high speed without time to think is always going to be a dangerous prospect. There’s no way to make that safe.

Instead, the NHL needs to focus on getting more thought and control into the equation. It’s much tougher than levying fines and reviewing tape, but it might be the only way to make NHL ice a safer place.

Teams can pretend they’re accountable for the actions of their players, but ultimately, players are the ones who need to feel accountable.

Teaching players on-ice awareness is the first step toward accountability.