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Revenge of the prissy paranoids: criticism of the NHL's new rule on curved blades bears witness to the birth of a new safety panic.

IF you're over 30, you can just about remember a world that occasionally acted for reasons other than safety. For better or worse, it was a world where you could smoke on a city bus, trim your fingernails on an airplane, and drink Coke out of a glass bottle--perhaps all in the same wacky day. We're all aware of the general trend, transforming that world into one of rounded corners and soft landings. But it's rare to witness the birth of a particular, irrational safety panic. Which is what makes Michael Farber's Sept. 20 column in Sports Illustrated so special.


As Farber notes, the NHL has changed its rule for 2006-07 about the maximum curve permitted on the stick blade. Players can now curve their blades up to three quarters of an inch at the widest point, which is meant to allow gifted European shooters like Jaromir Jagr to fire knuckleballs at goalies and score more goals. The rule change is a natural response to the new scoring environment created last season: power plays have become, in the eyes of many fans, unduly important to game outcomes, especially since so many once borderline infractions are now being penalized. It has become desirable (if not urgent) to increase even-strength scoring, and the league will likely try any possible innovation before it takes the radical step of changing the size of the goal--the one surviving historical constant in the game.

But Farber isn't happy with the looser stick rules. The first hint is the subhead-line: "NHL's new stick rule elevates shots, scoring, injuries." Elevates injuries? How, one might wonder, could Farber or his editor reach such a conclusion before the season had even begun? It's a question he never answers. "The problem," he explains ineptly, "is that the more liberal rule also matches the NHL Players Association's discreet response to workplace safety issues." Then, amazingly, he contradicts himself. "The extra curve on the sticks ... likely won't adversely affect player safety, at least in an immediate way."

Can Farber's argument really be that the new stick blades are safe, but are inherently deplorable on safety grounds, simply because the NHLPA and its members approve of them? So it seems. "There are so many other safety issues, including the reluctance to make visors mandatory for players entering the league, the absence of no-touch icing ... and a permissiveness about how loosely chin straps of the helmets can be worn, that the extra quarter-inch on a blade might not scream out as No. 1 on the to-do list," he writes, without explaining how the issue got onto the "to-do list" at all in a total vacuum of data. (The headline writer put them there?)

The one time Farber even approaches the question of how the new stick blades might be a practical safety concern is when he writes, "The perception of the bigger curves might change when a rising shot clips a visor-less defenseman's eye and changes that player's perception permanently." Farber has a long acquaintance with hockey, but I wonder how much one learns watching a game that one despises for its barbarity, as he seems to. My guess is that the major effect of the new blades, if any, will be to make hard wrist shots a more attractive option, relative to the one-timers that seem to cause most severe puck injuries. They might also de-privilege crowding the goalmouth in search of a random deflection--a safety-conscious trade any NHL goalie should be happy to make.

Those are just guesses, but unlike Farber, I admit to guessing, instead of inventing phony excuses to damn those responsible for a rule change. It is rare for a sports column to be so senseless and unjust that it can actually be considered evil, but the man has pulled it off. Pointing that out wouldn't be worth the ink on this page, except that in the future, other similarly disposed "reporters" will now be able to write, "Critics have accused the league and the players' union of neglecting safety in adopting new stick guidelines." That's how paranoid and prissy critics change our world, one magazine column at a time.
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Author:Cosh, Colby
Publication:Western Standard
Date:Nov 6, 2006
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