The NHL’s Stretcher Era: Where Does it End?

Lars Eller - Aftermath of the  Gryba hit. (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)
Teeth flying, blood flowing, Lars Eller had to be stretchered off the ice in last year’s playoffs after a hockey hit gone bad. (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

The stretcher. You know, that thing paramedics use to transport injured people? Hopefully you’ve never needed one. Hopefully you never will. Yet increasingly, more NHL players are. And season after NHL season we are increasingly witnessing its appearance on the ice in NHL arenas.

Stretchers do not belong on the ice. At any level.

When I was a kid watching hockey, I rarely if ever saw a stretcher come out during a game. And if it did, it was a big deal. Nowadays, it seems to happen so frequently that I’m afraid it’s becoming the new normal. And that’s not right.

Lord knows we’ve had our fair share of stretchers out on the ice at the Bell Centre in Montreal. And you don’t even have to go very far back to remember the latest examples. It was just a few short weeks ago when Max Pacioretty, in a strange and perhaps cruel twist of fate, delivered a seemingly innocent hit to the Bruins’ Johnny Boychuk. Boychuk somehow twisted his back in a freakish way and – out of precaution – was stretchered off the ice because he was having trouble breathing.

Of course, Pacioretty’s turn on the stretcher a few years back at the hands of Boston’s Zdeno Chara was much more serious; but no matter the prognosis, the sight of the stretcher now completely sickens teams and fans alike. Especially in Montreal. Pacioretty himself said after the Boston game that he was sickened by it.

The list goes on and on. We know what happened to tough guy George Parros in the season opener. The hit on Lars Eller in last year’s playoff series against the Ottawa Senators was just another recent example of the truly sick; teeth flying, blood flowing, Eller was “clocked” as they used to say, in a hockey hit gone bad. Or so that’s one way of putting it.

Now that the long arm of the law – as administered by NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan – has come down “hard” on the Bruins’ Shawn Thornton, suspending him for 15 games for his completely goonish, premeditated hit on a defenseless Brooks Orpik, perhaps players, coaches – and the league itself – will finally wake up and move the game out of its somewhat self-imposed “stretcher era.”

I’m not so sure.

We’ve heard it all before: The game today moves at a faster pace; the players don’t have the same kind of respect for each other they once had; the equipment is larger and as a result, more dangerous; the players are bigger. Yeah yeah yeah.

Shawn Thornton
Shawn Thornton (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

Look. It’s human nature to keep pushing forward, to ignore the blatantly obvious until that blatantly obvious is realized. Remember Hurricane Katrina!? People in New Orleans displaced or killed. Billions of dollars in damage (or was it trillions?). Lives ruined. All because of a freak of nature in the form of a storm, that could quite possibly happen again. And why? Because of a levee system that New Orleans officials knew could only sustain a certain category storm. Had they spent the millions of dollars back in 1980 for instance, to ensure and protect its city in a proactive and some may say, responsible manner, then the disaster could have been avoided altogether.

And today? The levees would still not be able to hold back another Katrina. So it could happen again.

Now am I pulling a Ron MacLean hyperbole, comparing that natural disaster to hockey violence!? Of course not.

The point I’m trying to make is that we know that something needs to be done that’s not being done. So what is it going to take for the NHL, its players and its teams, to figure it all out before the inevitable occurs? Is someone going to have to be killed on the ice during a game before a real, meaningful change occurs in the NHL!?

Hey it almost happened to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Ace Bailey at the hands of Eddie Shore back in 1933. It’s not like this is unique to the modern game.

Todd Bertuzzi ended Steve Moore’s career and the NHL didn’t do enough. That’s why the stretcher era is going nowhere fast.

The fact that Shawn Thornton is appealing his 15 game suspension isn’t a surprise. He’s doing everything within his rights – as is his right to do. And in the league’s view, they believe they’re coming down hard on him in its attempt to try to get this kind of thing out of the game. But in my view, it’s not enough.

Time and time again, the NHL had the chance to lay down the law and do what was necessary to restore the game’s lost honour and integrity. The key moment in time that brought us to this point was the Steve Moore/Todd Bertuzzi incident. Sure, just like Thornton, Bertuzzi was apologetic, he didn’t mean to do it, he’s sorry. And what happened? He was suspended, but it wasn’t enough. He should have been banned from the game. BANNED. The team should have been fined. BIG TIME. And it could be argued that head coach Marc Crawford should also have been banned or at least fined big time.

And what now? Moore’s hockey career ended in an instant, while Todd Bertuzzi sips beers quietly on camera for the latest HBO 24/7 series.

Until the league starts banning and/or suspending players for entire seasons for actions that don’t belong in the game, nothing is going to change. Someone will eventually pay the ultimate price. And that’s a shame.

1 thought on “The NHL’s Stretcher Era: Where Does it End?”

  1. I have to agree, more has to be done. If it means banning a reputable player, so be it. There was a time when I was younger where I thought the high level of violence was cool… but it isn’t. There was a time when I thought that the money made it OK…. but it doesn’t. I will always be a hockey fan, but the increasing level of violence and the subsequent damage being done to players is not fun to watch. They should be doing everything in their power to dampen it, because it will just slow the growth of the sport considerably.

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