A decade ago, my oldest son and I had a ritual: we’d sit down together on the couch or the floor on the weekend, and we’d watch car racing. In particular, we’d watch Nascar, the stock car racing circuit that jumped into prominence in the late 1990s.
The brightly coloured cars would go around the track like fast, angry bees, and we’d watch for favourite drivers. My son collected different toy cars with race car colours, and we’d look for the larger versions of those cars to lead races, and often, to get caught up in the not-unusual crashes, complete with smoking, flying car parts and occasional flames.
On Feb. 18, 2001, we were watching the Daytona 500, one of Nascar’s marquee races: it’s an easy date to remember, because just before the end of the race, there was another non-unusual crash. The difference was in that crash, a popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Sr., was killed.
My seven-year-old son and I stopped watching Nascar then — we have not watched a car race together since.
Earnhardt was the fourth driver to die in a year, but it was the first one we’d actually been sitting and watching — and it’s a sickening realization that, at that instant, someone had essentially died for our entertainment. Not a moment you’d like to share with your children. Nascar made many safety changes after the Earnhardt accident, and since then, there haven’t been any drivers killed.
But I won’t ever watch Nascar again. I didn’t like what it said about me.
Why talk about it now, more than a decade later?
Because if things don’t change, professional hockey — the NHL in particular — is going to have its own Dale Earnhardt Sr. moment.
Max Pacioretty was close.
Last week, the Montreal Canadiens forward was driven into a stanchion by an opposing defenceman at the Bell Centre in Montreal, and for a moment, it looked as if his head was going to be completely separated from his body.
Pacioretty was taken from the ice with serious injuries, including a severe concussion and a fractured neck vertebra.
Zdeno Chara, the Boston Bruins defenceman who hit Pacioretty, has said he didn’t mean to injure the Montreal forward: “I knew we were somewhere close to our bench but obviously that wasn’t my intention to push him into the post.”
Here’s Stirling Martin, the driver whose car struck Earnhardt’s and began the accident: “I definitely
didn’t do anything intentional. We were just racing our guts out for the last lap of the Daytona 500.”
Sounds eerily familiar.
Another comment from Martin?
“I watched the tape one time and that is all I want to see it.”
That goes double for me. I don’t ever want to see anything like it.
My son and I now watch hockey together. He plays the game, and we compare notes about where teams are going, and how different players are performing.
Hockey players are bigger and stronger and faster than they’ve ever been. They shoot harder, thanks in part to carbon-fibre composite sticks, and their skates are honed to an edge that makes a Ginsu knife ad look like slow-motion photography.
The NHL, right now, doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the individual, personal costs of head injuries and the players who leave the game to never return. Other leagues are packed with players who would like to make the big show, and those who don’t quite measure up in sheer skill instead make their mark with pure violence.
It’s within the power of the league to get rid of those who make their mark by injuring people who are more skilled players than they are. They just have to make the decision to act — hopefully, before someone is killed on national television. If consideration of the lives lost or permanently damaged doesn’t bother league officials (and at this point it doesn’t really seem to), perhaps the loss of fans will.
By then, it will be too late.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.