Bishop's Falls Alex Faulkner was not a fighter.
It’s the talk of the hockey world these days and there are as many views and opinions as there are hockey pucks.
The high-profile injuries this season that put Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby on the sidelines and sent the Montreal Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty to hospital appear to have finally grabbed the attention NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and the league’s general managers after reams of bad publicity in the sports and news media across North America.
Everyone from corporate sponsors to Prime Minister Stephen Harper have put in their two-cents worth on the growing concern over head shots in the NHL.
Bettman has outlined a five-point plan focusing on improving the treatment of concussions rather than preventing them, while the league GMs announced earlier this week they’d like to see a tighter enforcement of rules on charging and boarding.
Two Newfoundlanders, who skated in the NHL in different eras with contrasting styles of play, talked about when they played, while commentating on the way the game may have changed.
Equipment a problem
The first Newfoundlander to play in the NHL doesn’t hesitate to blame the modern-era equipment as a major factor in the cause of many of the head injuries.
As Alex Faulkner sees it, the elbow and shoulder pads worn by today’s players are simply too hard.
“When I played my elbow pads were soft,” said the Bishop’s Falls native, who played 100 games with Detroit Red Wings over two NHL season (1962-63, ‘63-’64).
“They were to protect my elbows when I fell or hit the boards. If I accidently hit someone with soft elbow or shoulder pads, they wouldn’t do any damage.”
As far as he’s concerned, playing NHL games on the wider international-size ice would also cut down on collisions. Faulkner feels it would take a lot of the bigger, slower, less-talented players out of the game.
“But, he added, “the players also have to have some respect for their fellow athletes playing the game.”
Faulkner said he remembers talking to former NHL superstar Bobby Hull of the Chicago Blackhawks in a Detroit airport.
“Bobby told me Chicago wanted him to fight and he said he wasn’t going to fight because he had no intention of possibly taking a living away from anybody because of a scrap.
“His point,” said Faulkner, “was that you can play physical and still play clean. I wish today’s players would remember that.”
Deer Lake’s Darren Langdon played hard and fought the biggest, toughest players of his era (1995-2006). Yet he says he never got a concussion from a punch, or a body or stick check to the head.
And Langdon wasn’t known as a head hunter, either.
“I might have gotten a buzz, but I was never got knocked out or felt sick or got a headache from a fight or a hit,” said Langdon.
In 521 games, the 11-year NHL enforcer who skated with Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, Vancouver Canucks and New Jersey Devils scored 16 goals while ringing up 1,251 penalty minutes.
Although Langdon doesn’t believe he ever suffered a concussion during his NHL career, he’s been around teammates who have been concussed.
Jeff Beukeboom, a teammate of Langdon’s on the 1998 Rangers, was sucker punched from behind by Los Angeles tough guy Matt Johnson and eventually was forced to quit the game because of repeated head injuries.
That same season, Langdon remembers star forward Pat LaFontaine announcing his retirement from the Rangers, citing the effects of six concussions.
“If I recall,” said Langdon, “his last concussion came about when he hit one of his own players.”
Langdon also points out he played when Devils defenceman Scott Stevens, who was known for his bone-crunching, border-line legal hits, “was knocking everyone out.
“He made tons of money for hitting people with their heads down,” said Langdon. “He’d be crucified for those hits today.”
According to a recent NHL report, 26 per cent of the more than 70 concussions this season have been from “accidental” clashes, such as a player running into a teammate or opponent or being hit by the puck. Concussions from illegal hits make up 17 per cent of the total, whereas 44 per cent come from what the league refers to as “legal” hits.
Fighting accounted for eight per cent of concussions this year, up from two per cent last year.
“Everyone is talking about it now,” said Langdon, “including the media and all the most devastating hits and brutal fights are watched by thousands on YouTube.”
Langdon says no one thinks about getting a concussion before a game.
“I never though of getting one in a fight,” he said. “I always thought defence first before I went on offence.
“You’re not trying to kill somebody … you’re just trying to survive. You don’t lead with your face against Tony Twist, I can tell you that,” Langdon said with a laugh, referring to one of the NHL’s better fighters during his days in the pros.
“You can watch every hockey game played in a season on TV these days,” said Langdon, “so nothing controversial goes unnoticed.
“I thought the (Zedno) Chara hit on Pacioretty was a two-minute interference penalty. It was just bad luck. Anywhere else on the ice and it’s no big deal.”
Faulkner, who had only 15 penalty minutes in his 101 NHL games, agrees and adds that he doesn’t think it should have even been a penalty.
“I don’t think there was anything dirty about that play,” said Faulkner.
Langdon said it wouldn’t bother him to play in today’s NHL despite the increase in concussions.
“It’s a hard, fast game and you are taking a risk every time you play, but I’m taking the same risk playing Newfoundland senior hockey,” said Langdon, who skates with Deer Lake Red Wings of the West Coast Senior Hockey League.
Faulkner said it wouldn’t bother him to play in today’s NHL despite the numerous concussions, before adding a caveat: “At five-foot-eight, I’d have to be twice as fast as I was, I tell ya that.”
He said if he had the same ability he had in the 1960s, he’d also make sure of was in top condition.
Faulkner said players in his era used training camp to get in shape, and that wouldn’t work today.
“I played soccer in the summer, so I was lucky in that way. I came to camp in better condition than most.”
Ironically enough, bigger, faster, stronger, better-conditioned athletes could be part of the problem on the smaller NHL ice surface where big bodies collide.