Controversy, concussions and tragedy. Here in 2011, every time you turn around, a nightmarish event seems to take place – ranging from the Vancouver riots in June to Wednesday’s unfathomable tragedy involving the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team. It has been never-ending and it keeps snowballing.
It all started on New Year’s Day, and we didn’t even know it at the time. At the end of the second period in the Winter Classic, Sidney Crosby was hit blindly by Washington’s David Steckel. It was an accidental hit, but one that gave the NHL’s top superstar a concussion that he is still feeling the effects of.
Crosby – on pace for 132 points at the time of his injury – has only played in two games in 2011. It’s the least serious of all mentioned here, but nonetheless, not having the sport’s best player on the ice can only have a negative effect on the league.
A couple months later, the Canadiens and Bruins had another chapter written in their historic rivalry – for the wrong reasons. Zdeno Chara’s devastating, crushing blow to Max Pacioretty ended up being the biggest controversy of the 2010-11 campaign.
Pacioretty left the ice on a stretcher, as his head was driven into a stanchion by Chara; the Habs forward suffered a broken neck and severe concussion. The incident prompted a criminal investigation from the Montreal Police, but failed to result in any disciplinary action on Chara. It also sparked a war of words, via media, between the B’s and Habs.
Things got even uglier in June when the Vancouver Canucks lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. The anticipation of the franchise’s championship turned into a full-fledged nightmare on the streets of Vancouver following the loss. Rioters crossed a line or three with their mind-blowing actions into the wee hours of the morning. For everyone in the downtown area, it was a scary situation.
It’s impossible not to associate those riots with the Bruins’ win; as they were celebrating, the city of Vancouver was being abused. You can even make an argument that the riots cast a shadow on the game itself. A Game 7 of the Cup final is the marquee event in the NHL. It didn’t feel that way soon after its conclusion.
Then we get into the off-season… the ‘Summer of Hell’, as some are calling it.
Derek Boogaard (mid-May), Rick Rypien (mid-August) and Wade Belak (late-August) all passed away well before their time. All three deaths were under different circumstances, but eerily similar at the same time (especially given they were all enforcers). Because of their on-ice playing style, they have all been thrown into the same conversation (fair or not), prompting pundits to wonder if fighting even has a place in hockey anymore.
And then there’s Wednesday.
In sports, team flights to away cities don’t even cross the minds of players or coaches who have boarded many flights without incident. Everybody knows the story of the 1970 University of Marshall college football team – among others – but no one ever thinks a team plane crashing, because of its infinite rarity, is in the realm of possibility. Which makes Wednesday’s events in Yaroslavl, Russia, so sad and tragic.
As you know by now, a Yak-42 passenger aircraft crashed in Yaroslavl just moments after takeoff, taking the lives of all but one member of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl KHL team (43 died in the crash). Notable ex-NHLers who perished were Pavol Demitra, Josef Vasicek, Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins and Brad McCrimmon (head coach).
IIHF president Rene Fasel called it the “darkest day in the history of our sport.” Sadly, it’s hard to argue that.
This summer’s tragedies have hit close to home for many current and former NHL players. In Boogaard and Demitra, Rangers forward Marian Gaborik lost two very close friends; in Skrastins, Capitals goaltender Tomas Vokoun lost his best friend. And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
The hockey world is smaller than we realize. At one point or another, a good amount of current NHLers crossed paths with these players that have died this summer. It’s a true fraternity – which is why when one player dies, the rest of the league feels like they lost a teammate/friend.
What this summer has brought to us hockey fans is perspective. Many view athletes – not just hockey players – as invincible. They’re not invincible. They’re regular human beings playing the sport we all admire.
A 6-foot-7 gentle giant nicknamed the ‘Boogey Man’ isn’t any less susceptible to an accidental overdose than anyone else. A hockey team boarding a flight isn’t any less susceptible to a plane crash than anyone else. And though it pales in comparison to the aforementioned tragedies, a superstar like Crosby isn’t any less susceptible to a major concussion than anyone else.
I believe this summer is going to make us fans appreciate the games themselves even more. Once the games begin, the hockey world will be able to move on and get back to the everyday life of the sport. We should be discussing wins and losses and anticipating training camp – not mourning the tragic and premature loss of members of the hockey brotherhood.
Hockey is supposed to be fun. In many ways, this calendar year has been anything but fun. In the sport we most passionately love, 2011 has turned into a year to forget.
October 6th can’t get here soon enough.
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