Right now, I'm watching more hockey than ever. True story: Last week, my wife said to me, "Do you watch anything besides hockey?" So I turned to Hawaii Five-O and she hated that so much, she said, "Turn it back."
However, the answer is usually a yes. I try to go to movies or read a non-sports book just to get away for a little while. Not lately, though. The games are as compelling as I've ever seen them. Either live or in person, the quality of competition is incredible. So is the speed, power and skill. Players love to compete and many are well aware that if they don't, teams will find someone else who will. Every day, you're guaranteed riveting action.
Last night began with Toronto-Islanders, Buffalo-Pittsburgh and Boston-Montreal. Like many of you, I was horrified to see Max Pacioretty carried off on a stretcher. And like many of you, I was relieved to hear he had movement in his extremities, although he must deal with hockey's current danger - the concussion.
Thanks to the Twitterverse, reaction was instantaneous. Canadiens fans wanted Zdeno Chara arrested, while Bruins supporters dismissed it as a love tap (as usual, the most gutless were profane in their disagreement, secure in the knowledge they could safely slur over the Internet). People without Montreal or Boston logos in their avatars lacked any kind of consensus. And after watching several different replays many different times, I can't say Chara deliberately tried to injure Pacioretty.
But that's the NHL's biggest problem right now. What's made it better than ever has also made it more dangerous than ever.
You get one guy listed at six-foot-nine, 255 pounds and arguably the best athlete and strongest player in the league. You get another officially measured at six-foot-two, 196 pounds - although Pacioretty seems bigger - and is no slouch in the physicality department. They're both skating at high speed, chasing a loose puck. Chara's team is down 4-0 and he allows a breakaway if Pacioretty beats him. Yes, there is the obvious bitterness between the two players and teams, but Chara's not stalking his foe like Milan Lucic did with Benoit Pouliot late in the game. (Honestly, did we really need to see that after Pacioretty's injury?)
It's a race for the puck and it happens hundreds of times a night. All it takes is one little thing to go wrong and we're flirting with disaster - like both men heading towards the dangerous glass between the benches.
I thought the referees handled it correctly, giving Chara a five-minute interference penalty and a game misconduct. Ultimately, you are responsible for your actions. But I honestly don't know where Mike Murphy, who will handle supplemental discipline because of Gregory Campbell's presence, should go from there.
It's sensory overload in the NHL. I can't help but think of Pacioretty's parents, terrified in the Bell Centre crowd, watching their son strapped to a stretcher right in front of them. I can't help but think of Troy and Trina Crosby, similarly suffering as children, Sidney and Taylor, battle their respective concussion issues. I can't help but think of Bob Probert's brain, of Keith Primeau's determination to make us take this more seriously, and of Dr. Robert Cantu's insistence that one out of every four fights results in head trauma because guys are sitting in the penalty box instead of being diagnosed.
I'd understand if parents were too scared to let their kids play hockey.
But there are other things I think of too: I think of Dr. Cantu saying there is no proof any hockey or football helmet can really prevent a concussion. I think of Ian Laperriere, knowing that if I'd waited 15 years to compete for the Stanley Cup, I'd go out there too, injuries be damned. In the last three days, two guys who made it to the NHL by fighting - Tie Domi and Shawn Thornton - told The Toronto Sun and The Boston Globe, respectively, that they didn't want to know about the Probert brain research. Would I be any different? To play in the NHL and earn a good living for my family? Probably not.
The respect issue is overblown. There wasn't a lot of respect during the brawling, stick-swinging 1970s or the white-hot rivalries of the '80s (Oilers/Flames, Canadiens/Nordiques) and '90s (Red Wings/Avalanche). Anyone who says yesterday's players were more respectful is kidding themselves.
Sure, there are things that can be done to make the game safer. Equipment, which is more dangerous than preventative, is finally being addressed, although I'd like to see things move much faster. Supplementary discipline could be a lot more consistent and effective. Players who look woozy on the ice could be pulled off for a more detalied, immediate examination.
But the thing I think of most is what OHL commissioner David Branch told CBC Radio's Teddy Katz about two months ago: "We still have too many concussions in our league," even though there's an automatic ejection for a hit to the head.
Is that it?
Is it possible that for all of the talk about preventing injuries and concussions, the real problem is simply the game itself? That the best thing about hockey - the intensely competitive games, the tremendous skill, speed and power of the players - is the real danger? That less interference means greater risk? If Zdeno Chara could put his stick on Max Pacioretty, is this blog even being written?
Hockey's at its best but also its most dangerous. And I admit, I don't have an answer for that.