ice time

Time again for the country to come to the ice, even if the vice-versa is not quite the case, yet. In Toronto, the thermometer dropped its mercury the first October weekend to help with the anticipation of the NHL’s new season. In Toronto, the chill briefly made the Hockey Night In Canada advertising a little more plausible, all those stern billboard Dion Phaneufs looming over Dundas Square, the shadowy Andrew Ladds striding out of darkness, into the light. But the cold didn’t hold — it wasn’t all the way convinced that it should be hockey season. Maybe out in New Brunswick, where they got a frost midweek, though not so much in Manitoba, home again to the Jets, fine, but also the hottest its been, 31 C, since they started writing these things down in 1871.

October is a crowded season for … well, seasons. In Toronto they’ve all been clamouring for attention. Vote! Give thanks! Don’t forget to figure out a good costume to wear for Hallowe’en! Time, too, almost, for winter tires! Also this was the week the flu started advertising the opening of its season — or no, sorry, it was the flu fighters who were making their case. The commercial I watched was a scary sequence of already pale and miserable-looking urban people grimly infecting one another by means of file folders, handshakes, and close contact on city buses. It made me want to hold my fare and stay home, though I know the intended message is more of an Up you get! Out! Go on! Get that needle into your arm!

The NHL wishes. Or — I don’t know what the NHL wishes or doesn’t. Maybe in the league’s labs deep beneath Manhattan the hockey scientists are doctoring up some kind of all-purpose vaccine with which to inoculate the game against all that’s ailing it. In the meantime the hockey authorities have to deal with the game’s challenges the old-fashioned way, with leeches, cold compresses, lots of bed-rest.

There’s a lot to cure. One of the slogans they’ve using on TV promos for Hockey Night in Canada is the curiously dispirited It Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This. Really? Never? Not ever? It has been a terrible year for hockey, it’s true, but what about a dose of optimism?

Though maybe all the weeks of Sidney Crosby-watching have exhausted hockey’s reserves. It’s ten months now since the first of January when Crosby had his brain concussed in Pittsburgh. Maybe it was an accident when Washington’s Dave Steckel shrugged a shoulder into Crosby’s head, in which case to coin a new passive verb, to be steckelled, might seem undue and even not fair. Whatever the intent, any of us watching that hit would have predicted a concussion on the spot, except that no, sorry, apparently nobody thought so there and then. So Crosby played on. Next time out, Tampa Bay, it didn’t look like much, but when a defenceman pushed him into the boards, a light hedmanning we’ll call it, that was it, he was gone.

Crosby’s absence opened up a number 87-sized hole in hockey that ended up swallowing everything else. There was a hope he’d be back for the playoffs but he never quite did make it, and for a moment the NHL wondered whether maybe it might be best, the right thing, to just stop — suspend operations until they could get this whole head trauma business figured out for once and for all. They’d be needing two low-lit rooms somewhere, one for hockey to get to work on fixing itself, the other where Sidney the Kidney could rest and recover and get his game back.

Unless — no, maybe that wasn’t the way to go. Maybe the best thing was to keep going, which (if you missed it) the NHL did. They did do some repairs, it has to be said, as the season went along, to try to rid the game of all further steckelizing — or, the technical term, headshots. Would anything have happened if it wasn’t Crosby’s head that was shaken? It’s a good question that we’ll never be able to answer, right up there with would there have been a riot in Vancouver if the Canucks had won and if so, would that have felt worse than the riot that was?

It was a bad end to the season. Then, after that, that was when the hockey players started to die. Actually, continued to die — Derek Boogard’s death was in May, followed by Rick Rypien’s in August. A month later it was Wade Belak. The voids they left were actual rather than merely rhetorical: where three men had lived within families, among friends, now there was nothing. Death, as it does, defeated sense and reason. Mostly what it demanded was silent respect and sympathy times three, and also a moratorium on gossip and seamy innuendo. And yet — was there, could there be, maybe, some kind of — a pattern? They’d all fought, these three, so maybe that was it, their deaths were some kind of a message about the toll hockey’s fighting takes on the fighters. An indictment, even? There had to be some kind of a cautionary tale or lesson to be learned in those three sad, separate stories, didn’t there? Did there?

Hockey was getting ready to skate again the week of Wade Belak’s funeral. Along with all the stretching and stick-taping, there was news, too, a report (though no arrests, yet) on who was to blame for Vancouver’s riot (troublemakers + alcohol) and, finally, after a summer of whispers, word from Sidney Crosby on where he was with his head.

He was bringing his doctors to a press conference that Wednesday morning a month ago when fresh catastrophe pre-empted: from Russia came the shocking news of yet more deaths, 44 of them, in the crash of the plane carrying players and coaches from the Russian team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. “The darkest day in the history of our sport,” said the IIHF president, Rene Fasel, and that seemed about right, and just as inadequate. “The violent deaths of a club of young men seems malign and illogical,” Alec Wilkinson wrote on a New Yorker blog.

Whatever protection exists in life ought to prevent such a thing from happening.                                                                                     When events unfold in such a way as to make the universe seem indifferent, it is                                                                                      as if the world has tilted from its balance. One has soberly to admit that no agency                                                                                protects the innocent.

Life goes on, and so does a press conference. Sid, at the latter, updated us on the former. Everyone called him Sid, including a Maclean’s reporter, when she stepped up to ask her question, she said, “Hey, Sid.” Sid said, “Mentally I feel good.” His doctors talked more than he did — for much of the time, as Ken Dryden would later point out, as though Sid and his brain weren’t in the room. Dr. Michael (Mickey) Collins mentioned eggshells and fog and HDTVs and Ferraris and boogeymen and herding cows back into the barn. He talked about deficits and impacts. He said, “It’s a little complex.” He said “an energy problem with the brain” and “exceptional progress” and “neuron chemicals” and “approaching normal limits” and “extremely encouraged” and “very pleased” and “cannot predict” and “no timelines on this.” The other concussion specialist, Dr. Ted Carrick said, “Good day, people.” He talked about small perturbations and great perturbations. He used the word askew and the word aberrancy. Patterns have to be broken, he said. There are changing grids in the brain, apparently. “He’s remarkably stable,” Dr. Carrick opined. He said, “It’s a good time to have a head injury” — relatively speaking is what he meant, today as opposed to olden days, as far as the modern advances and technologies.

When it was Sid’s turn to talk, he alluded to rough roads and rollercoasters and also to dice that were not going to be rolled. He said, “Retirement, no,” in answer to a question from the CBC’s Paul Hunter, had he thought about it?

NHL training camps opened up five days later. Mostly we left them to it, the hockey people. Let them get their game legs, their game faces, figure who’s going to be playing the point on the powerplay, and whether Brayden Schenn ought to be starting in the minors. None of that was stuff we needed to see — we’d be back when everything was good to go in October.

Except for, well, September’s hockey kept calling attention to itself. There was the offensive behaviour: a nasty incident in London, Ontario, with the banana that was thrown while a black player skated on goal. Also there was this same player, a week later, having to explain himself for using a six-lettered homophobic f-word during a hoo-ha with a known-to-be-nasty non-sympathetic New York Ranger.

The NHL let that last one go — on a lack of evidence, I think they said. Hits to head were a different story, and that’s where most of the attention collected, around the new commander of the (also new) NHL Department of Player Safety — the vice-president of protecting players from themselves, Brendan Shanahan. It wasn’t only the number of suspensions handed out in the pre-season, or their length, though there were lots of them (10) and long ones (12 games for James Wisniewski). There was a new rigor, too, to the process, and what looked like a firm resolve to enforce the new anti-hit-to-the-head rule from the spring.

Is it a new age hockey is entering this fall? Is the game about to change forever? If there weren’t any definitive answers to those questions last week (and there weren’t), two men who expanded the conversation in the most useful and interesting ways were — well, they were both not named Don Cherry, first of all.

Ken Dryden was one: hockey’s lonely conscience wrote an essay for Grantland.com (The Globe and Mail reprinted it) calling for the NHL to act on head injuries for once and for all. You won’t find that essay posted or linked to or reported on or even glancingly referred to at nhl.com, which must be a mistake, since it should be required reading for anyone who’s interested in where the game’s going and is, in fact, more or less addressed directly to Gary Bettman’s attention. The time for dissembling and diversion is long gone, Dryden persuasively says, time now to be smart, and to act. No more dodging, denying, tweaking rules that need to be overhauled. What’s needed now is proper leadership. And if it’s player safety we’re talking about, then of course there can be only one answer to the question of what to do about fighting. If it’s brain trauma you’re trying to address, can you really still have players punching one another in their heads?

Peter Mansbridge asked exactly that question when he talked to Brendan Shanahan the week before the puck dropped. For all the hockey on the nation’s TVs last week — all the previews and fantasy drafts, the insider reports, the live dispatches from Winnipeg and, finally, the games themselves — the CBC national news was where the action was. “I think it’s something we have to look at,” Shanahan said, of fighting — not much, maybe, but to Kremlinologists who study the NHL, the mere fact that someone at the top of the politburo was saying anything at all about fighting was the equivalent of Gorbachev missing the May Day parade at Red Square.

Then on Wednesday, season’s eve, Mansbridge was down in Boston — not, as it turned out, to visit with the proud Bruins and their Stanley Cup. He had on a blue smock and goggles, as I guess you’d want to be wearing for what was about to take place: Mansbridge’s documentary will certainly have to have been the first time in hockey history that a human brain has been sawn in half on national TV.

The woman with the saw was Dr. Anne McKee, co-director of the Centre for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, Mansbridge’s host for the visit. That’s a hockey word now, encephalopathy, along with vestibular and neurogeneration, just as the names and faces of doctors, McKees and Cantus, are as familiar as Proberts and Primeaus.

The brain in question belonged to a boxer, not a hockey player, and it wasn’t really the story of the moment. That belonged to a different brain, Richard Martin’s, of which Dr. McKee had a big photograph of a magnified slice to show Mansbrige. And there it was, the shadow that may yet prove be one of the greatest perturbations to hit the game we cherish so much and don’t want to fear.

Martin was 59 when he died earlier in March of heart failure, after which his wife donated his brain for study. The former Buffalo Sabre was no fighter. Not at all: he was a skater and a passer — a scorer of goals. And yet the shade on his brain indicated an early stage of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. He had one terrible fall to the ice, in 1978, smack on the back of the head, but there was more to it than just that, said Dr. McKee, this was accumulated damage, the result of the countless jolts and jarrings, the everyday impacts of simply playing hockey. The message of Rick Martin’s brain would seem to be plain enough: if skating and hitting and fighting are natural pieces of the game, then so is dementia.

Back again on Toronto’s subway during the first week of hockey another seasonal sign that caught my eye that was the warning to stay off Ontario’s lakes and rivers as they start to freeze, tempted though I will obviously be to venture out and test their ice. I was in a hurry and didn’t see whose ads these were — Ontario’s government or power authority, maybe the provincial police? The OPP do have a slogan they use, though I’ve only ever heard it spoken in mid-winter, usually by constables presiding at the scene of another sunken snowmobiler. Could be they don’t have the budget for a fullblown poster campaign, though maybe, anyway, with hockey starting up, it’s altogether too much of a message for the country to bear: No Ice Is Safe Ice, they say.