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Friday, October 13, 2006
Do New NHL Sticks Threaten Workplace Safety?

In an effort to boost goal scoring, the National Hockey League has decided to increase the allowable curvature of sticks from a half-inch to three quarters of an inch. The new sticks will enable players to better aim their shots, and will mimic the stick curvature rule in Europe's International Ice Hockey Federation, an important NHL consideration in light of the increasing number of NHL players from Europe. Moreover, while the NHL enjoyed something of a renaissance last season--scoring and attendance were up from pre-lockout figures and the game was faster and more interesting (unless you were a Boston Bruins fan!)--television ratings, which may be the most crucial metric for evaluating a league's success, went "from bad to worse." Along those lines, the NHL apparently believes that TV ratings will improve with more goal scoring (even though scoring went up last year and TV ratings went down), so they are allowing increased stick curvature.

Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated, however, speculates that while 3/4 curved sticks might enhancing scoring, they will likely increase eye and facial injuries ("Rising Concern," Sept. 20, 2006):
"The perception of the bigger curves might change when a rising shot clips a visor-less defenseman's eye and changes that player's perception permanently."
Despite Farber's concern, the National Hockey League Players' Association supports this new rule. As Farber details, the NHLPA's position is consistent with its laisez-faire approach to player safety, such as by not advocating that players wear visors and other forms of facial protection. Indeed, the NHL and NHLPA largely allow players to play as they desire, even when doing so may impose significant safety risks on themselves and other players. And even when they regulate player safety, they often don't impose deterring sanctions. For instance, if a player's stick exceeds the allowable curvature, he is only assed a two-minute penalty (as opposed to a baseball player being suspended for a corked bat, if that is a fair analogy). Other hockey experts corroborate this broader concern. For instance, Eric McErlain of Off Wing Opinion recently wrote,
One of the little known secrets of the NHL, is the fact that players regularly make modifications to their equipment for the sake of comfort and convenience -- modifications that often come at the expense of safety.

Virtually all of the players in the league shave protective padding from the inside of their helmets for the sake of comfort. In addition, the protective ear flap that is standard equipment on a hockey helmet available at your local sporting goods store is removed in order to improve the player's hearing. And of course, it's pretty much common knowledge that protective visors that are mandatory at all levels of amateur ice hockey are discarded once players make it to the NHL.

Similarly, as McErlain discusses today, the NHL has just voted to ban mirrored visors (most famously worn by Washington Capitals' star Alexander Ovechkin) because they allegedly supply wearing players with a "competitive advantage." This type of move may further corroborate the contention that the NHL is concerned more about product success than product safety.

Having said that, do we even know if the new sticks are more dangerous? I know they are used in Europe, but Farber doesn't cite injury statistics from Europe. And even if there more eye and facial injuries in the European leagues, couldn't there be other variables (e.g., rink dimensions; comparative style of play etc.) that might also prove explanatory? Moreover, back in the days of Bobby Orr, the NHL allowed sticks curved up to 1.5 inches--were there more injuries because of that? In other words, there seems to be potential empirical data that Farber could use to corroborate his allegation, and it would be helpful if he employed it.

Here's another thought: If the NHLPA genuinely represents the will of the players, should we even question its decision to value "style" over "safety"? Or might the NHLPA be under-appreciating importance of player safety? Is this a case of both collective bargaining units ignoring player/employee safety and perhaps even morality for the sake of profits?


Good post. Can you imagine if these guys are on the juice, too, and have "abnormal" or super-human (Spawn-like) strength and now have sticks on skates?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/13/2006 3:45 PM  

A suggestion : Have the players wear clear plastic goggles to protect their eyes.

Not so many years ago barely any players ever wore helmets. Now I think they all do as I believe it's a league rule. Adopt a rule for mandatory wearing of goggles.

As for the new curve with the sticks...I like it if it's going to increase control of the puck, thereby increasing scoring.

Anonymous Dave Burkey -- 10/13/2006 6:01 PM  

This is a classic example of greed vs. prudence. The reason why the NHLPA undervalues its workplace safety regulations is due to the fact that its voting members are, due to the composition of teams, majoritarily A) non-goalies (who obviously disapprove of any pro-goal scoring measure) and B) forwards. Forwards and many offensive defencemen stand to make considerable amounts of money during free agency if they can score even a few more goals a season.

If the NHLPA was a responsible union, it would point out to its members that A) blinded hockey players do not command high market value and B) that MOST offensive players would similarly benefit from such a change which, in effect, means that all increases in goal-scoring would be but relative.

Of course, one may argue that the NHLPA has repeatedly shown that really doesn't care if members are hurt as long as it doesn't affect the bottom line.

Anonymous Jason Chung -- 10/13/2006 6:48 PM  

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