After a week of heated debate over violence in the NHL, Washington Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau had a blunt message for the game’s harshest critics: “If you don’t like it, don’t come to the games.”
According to a recent survey, that is exactly what some Canadians plan to do as 25 percent of those polled said they would watch less hockey because of the NHL’s failure to impose stiff penalties on dangerous plays.
The poll surveyed 1,021 Canadians on Monday and Tuesday in the aftermath of a hit by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara on Max Pacioretty that left the Montreal Canadiens forward unconscious on the ice with a concussion and broken vertebrae.
The survey, commissioned by public relations firm Navigator and conducted by Angus Reid, was released on the heels of a disturbing study by a Toronto hospital that found a dramatic increase in head trauma among nine and 10-year-olds since 1998, when Hockey Canada lowered the age to allow bodychecking.
That age group is now 10 times more likely to end up in an emergency room with a concussion, according to the study.
It is all bad news for the NHL, which has been waging a losing public relations battle trying to convince fans that they are taking the concussion rate seriously.
After three days of meetings this week were dominated by discussions on head shots, the NHL believed it demonstrated a willingness to tackle the issue, rolling out a five-point plan to curtail concussions followed by a series of recommendations by general managers.
However, the NHL was feeling the wrath of fans again on Thursday, failing to back up its tough talk with tougher suspensions after Bruins forward Brad Marchand and San Jose Sharks right winger Dany Heatley were let off with two game bans for deliberately elbowing opponents in the head.
The response is almost certain to further infuriate fans who, according to the Angus Reid survey, overwhelmingly believe the NHL is not doing enough to curb hockey violence.
“Fans are fed up and they are signaling that they will change the channel if substantive changes aren’t made,” Jaime Watt, chairman of Navigator, said in a statement.
The unhappiness over the NHL’s response to escalating violence is widespread and has even found its way into their own ranks.
Following Chara’s hit, several NHL sponsors expressed their concern, with Montreal-based Air Canada threatening to pull its sponsorship unless the league took immediate action.
Team owners have also been uncharacteristically vocal, as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Mario Lemieux and Montreal’s Geoff Molson were among those demanding action from the league.
Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melynk went even further, telling a Toronto radio station that the league must adopt a zero tolerance policy that would result in a lifetime ban for any player deliberately hitting another in the head.
In a country where hockey has been compared to religion, the NHL has witnessed a stunning erosion of its popularity over the past week.
Even Canada’s “hockey parents,” who routinely shell out as much as US$5,000 for a child to play top level organized hockey, have begun to question the sport’s values.
“There’s a buzz around hits to the head and concussions and we have to make sure that we’re looking at all of those,” Bob Nicholson, president of Hockey Canada, said. “We’re going to react to it, but we are not going to overreact.”
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