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Do NHL Players Really Understand?

But the ultimate way for the game to become safer is to instill some fear into those who play.
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The NHL faces a difficult time.

The solution is complex but there is a simple question involving the rash of concussions in today's game. Will the league wait until a player is paralyzed or killed while playing hockey before they mandate changes to help insure safety? Possibly the league will choose to tempt fate and do very little.

The most effective measure may come about by changing the awareness of players instead of rewriting the rule book.

The NHL needs to become proactive rather than reactive.

In the past the league has chosen to do the latter. The best immediate action is to make players more aware of the lethal consequences of head shots and late hits.

Not to forget those who have had careers cut short due to the side effects of head trauma but fortunately the league has only had to deal twice with the loss of life occurring during a game. Those fatalities did change the lives of many people.

In January of 1968, Minnesota North Star forward Bill Masterton died as a result of head injuries suffered during a game. It was reported Masterton fell backward and struck his head after on an open ice hit. He had just completed a pass and was checked. That sounds eerily familiar to avid NHL fans of today.

Players did not wear helmets then and when Masterton's head hit the ice with full force a resounding thud was heard. Although assistance was soon brought to aid Masterton, he immediately began to turn blue. He died two days later as a result of the head injury.

Some eleven years after Masterton's passing, in June of 1979, the NHL made wearing helmets mandatory for players entering the league. Those already in the NHL could continue to go helmetless if they chose. Craig MacTavish played until the 1996-1997 season without a helmet.

The league honored Masterton's memory almost immediately. They named a trophy after him and it has been awarded to the player who shows the most determination and dedication to the game. Masterton was an All- American college player and spent some time in the minors before retiring in 1963. He came back to join the North Stars in their inaugural season and scored the first goal in franchise history.

With current happenings maybe the NHL should award the Masterton Memorial trophy this season to the player who returns after suffering the most severe concussion.

The second fatality at a NHL game involved a spectator.

In March of 2002, Brittanie Cecil was brought to a Columbus Blue Jackets game as an early birthday present from her dad. A slap shot deflected off a defenseman's stick and flew into the crowd. After bouncing off another fan the puck struck Cecil in the head and she died as a result of complications from head trauma two days later.

The young girl perished two days before her 14th birthday. Cecil's fatal injury was as a result of her head snapping back after she was hit. NHL players face the same consequence as their heads can snap back after a forceful hit.

It didn't take the NHL eleven years to make a decision on preventive action that time.

The following season the league mandated all arenas to be equipped with netting around each end of the ice to protect fans. That response was not proactive, as flying pucks going into the stands was considered an obvious hazard to paying customers for years. Little mention was given to such preventive measures until the Cecil tragedy happened.

The NHL was forewarned though.

There were two previous deaths caused by pucks hitting spectators in minor league hockey games. One occurred in 1984 and the other death took place in 2000. Unfortunately it took a horrible accident to a youngster to make NHL hockey arenas safer for all spectators.

Screening has been in place behind baseball diamonds for many decades but for whatever reason the NHL chose to react rather than prevent. At least it didn't take as long for a protective measure to be put in place as was the case after Masterton's death. There were many more lawyers in 2002 compared to 1968, and maybe for once that was a good thing.

Professional hockey is much different than every sport.

Hitting is part of the game and the boards are in play because there is no out of bounds. Certainly there can be some rule modifications and equipment changes to make the game less hazardous. But the ultimate way for the game to become safer is to instill some fear into those who play.

If not to go as far as to call it fear... How about some sensible caution.

Players today don't realize how close they can come to killing someone or paralyzing them with a body check. They don't show each other enough respect but that is only part of the problem. Maybe it is the new and improved equipment, but players act invincible. More than anything else it seems players don't consider the consequences of a high or late hit. There is no fear for themselves or the player receiving the contact.

To finish a body check means to eliminate an opponent from the play. It does not mean to eliminate someone from the game or worse yet from life.

Effective play without potentially deadly force is possible.

Back in the late fifties and sixties, Elmer "Moose" Vasko played defense for the Chicago Blackhawks and was my father's best friend. When he entered the NHL, Vasko was about 6'2" 200 pounds, which in those days was huge. Over time Moose got even larger; during much of his playing career he stood 6'3" and was 230 pounds or more.

Vasko played for the Hawks from 1956 to 1966 and was a fine hockey player. He won the Memorial Cup and the Stanley Cup. He was also selected as an All Star twice as a Hawk and once near the conclusion of his career while playing for the Minnesota North Stars. In the 1968 playoffs the North Stars lost in double overtime of game seven of the semi-finals to the St. Louis Blues. That loss prevented Vasko from getting another shot at the Stanley Cup.

My father saw every game Vasko played at the Chicago Stadium and he understood hockey. He told me something a long time ago and it never really hit home until recently. My dad thought that down deep Vasko had a fear of really hurting someone with a check.

Vasko often got the job done but without using excessive force as he dwarfed the opposition. Being more reckless with his size advantage would have made him a greater intimidating force. But the safety of others would have been sacrificed and Vasko seemingly wouldn't take the chance. Moose was physical enough and was able to be an effective player for many years.

Maybe it was Vasko's nature or the fact he was always the biggest player on the ice. At some point growing up he had to have injured someone as a result of his dominate size. Probably from a young age he realized he needed to be extra careful especially considering players were not as well protected then.

Vasko was smart enough and good enough to walk the line of being a strong defender without jeopardizing another player's livelihood or life. He was the biggest player in the NHL until Peter Maholovich entered the league in 1965. Although Maholovich was a few inches taller, Vasko was much heavier and stronger.

The idea of players backing off a bit on hits is nothing new. It happens many times during every game. Often players turn or don't follow through on checks when others are in a vulnerable position.

Now the problem is players aren't consistently discerning with the use of force. They must not fully recognize the consequences of their actions. A very few are just bad actors who have no place in the sport, but the vast majority don't display enough caution.

Players are trained on how to deal with the media and instructed in many other aspects of the game on and off the ice. It is time for the NHL to show players the consequences of a fractured skull or spinal cord injury and how easily a tragic accident could happen on the ice.

The NHL has to begin planning for a safer game and their first act should be to make players more aware.

It might be time for each club to make a visit to a local hospital. The players can see first hand how a head or spinal cord injury can severely compromise or end someone's life.

The players are bigger, stronger, and faster than in years past.... But are they as aware?

One thing is certain the human brain and spinal cord are still vulnerable to severe injury. This is not the time for the NHL to be only reactive.

Al's Shots

I have a story which says more about the character of Elmer "Moose" Vasko than anything he ever accomplished on the ice.

During Blackhawk training camp in 1966 Moose decided he had enough. He no longer had the desire to deal with the training and the injuries which were a part of the game. One day he left practice and told Hawk management he was retiring. My father received a phone call and Moose came over to our house late that afternoon.

When he arrived he was obviously shaken. He pulled the trap door on his life and now had to earn a living in another way. Interesting timing, as NHL expansion was coming and players' like Vasko, Glenn Hall and many others would have an opportunity to earn more money than ever before. On this night Moose wasn't concerned with an expansion team paycheck.

I listened while he and my dad spoke.

Moose was sure he was done with hockey. After awhile my father told me to go out and play, at that time I was ten years old. I left the house and went to the local school playground and mentioned to a couple of friends Moose was at my house. A few kids followed me home because they wanted to get an autograph.

I went up into my living room and asked my dad if Moose could come into the backyard and sign a couple of autographs for my friends. My timing wasn't great and if looks could kill my life would have ended then. Moose saw my father was angry and he quickly told him.... They're just kids. He then looked at me and said he would be in the backyard in a few minutes.

When I got outside there weren't three or four kids waiting, but at least 20. The word had gotten out and every boy in the neighborhood was headed to my house. By the time Moose got there the line stretched down my driveway past the garage and wrapped around into the alley behind my house.

For the better part of at least an hour, Moose signed every autograph.

Kids brought sticks, pucks, pictures and whatever else they could find. Moose didn't just scribble his last name and uniform number four, but personalized every autograph. With each kid he would ask their name and if they played hockey. Moose took his time and made each boy feel special on that very difficult day.

I knew my father wasn't happy the night turned into a Vasko autograph session. Moose looked at me as the last kid turned to go home and I sheepishly thanked him and was about to say I'm sorry. But before I could finish he told me not to worry, everything was fine and my father would be ok too.

Moose left hockey for one season and then signed in Minnesota where he became captain and was picked for the All-Star team that year. He played until 1969 and was finally able to earn a decent paycheck. Vasko had success with the North Stars and finished his career in a better way.

Ironically, Moose was on the team when Bill Masterton struck his head on the ice and later died. He had tears in his eyes when he told the story. Moose mentioned there was nothing anyone could have done for Bill and he feared the worse as soon as it happened.

I feel the worse could happen today unless things change in the NHL.

Elmer "Moose" Vasko died of cancer on October 30, 1998, he was 62 years old.

Additional blogs by Al Cimaglia concerning the Chicago Blackhawks and the NHL can be read at

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