Everything Else

Ok, not really, but it was a fun joke to make.

There is a great fear in football, which was there before Andrew Luck retired but is now only exacerbated, about a shrinking player pool. And that’s at every level. As you probably already know, the level of participation at the youth level has been dropping for years, as more and more parents have decided slowly killing their children is less than ideal. And at the top level, more and more players are retiring at younger and younger ages because they’ve made their money, don’t feel the need to ruin their later years, and can still get out with everything mostly intact or as close to it as they’ll ever be.

The other sport with concussion issues, or at least a lawsuit because of it (baseball probably has one too at least behind the plate) hasn’t had this rash yet. We haven’t seen a lot of players retiring early when in the peak of their careers unless there was no other choice. Nathan Horton didn’t have a choice. David Clarkson had piled up so many injuries he didn’t have a choice. There are other names who simply could not even consider playing again. But they’re a far bigger rarity than what we’re seeing in the NFL.

But with Andrew Luck being the biggest name to decide it wasn’t worth it (rightly) anymore, is this something the NHL will have to fear in the near future? I tend to doubt it.

One, and the big one that both sides of the brain-injury debate in football tend to miss, is the very nature of football is destructive to the brain. It’s not the blow ’em-up, wince-on-your-couch hits that are the problem, or THE problem. The arbiters of the game think it is, a lot of fans on both sides think it is, but it’s not the major issue. It’s the contact on every play. It’s the simple blocking and tackling, the sub-concussive contact that adds up over a game, season, career that does most of the damage. And you can’t measure that damage on the brain until it’s too late. It’s also that contact that leads to a ton of other injuries, the type that Luck decided he’d had enough of. Football is just a dull ache at best all the time, disastrous on the body at its worst.

Hockey doesn’t have that. It has contact all over the ice of course, but nothing like football. There are probably entire shifts players can go through without contact (cue Don Cherry losing his mind about Europeans here). Hockey’s injuries come from the big hits, and those are the ones that the rules-makers are ham-handedly trying to fix. You could actually get these completely out of the game if you weren’t so terrified about an old white man with a nose the size of Idaho and as red as Mississippi losing his goddamn mud over it. That’s another debate, but the rate of major injury in hockey just isn’t the same.

Second, hockey players just don’t have the safety net that Luck does.

We joke about hockey players being dumber than donkey shit all the time, but this does enter into it. Luck has a Stanford education, and while there are hockey players from Harvard, Yale, Michigan (it’s a seriously good school I’m not being biased here), Brown, Cornell, BC, BU, and a few others, the ones who stay all four years and graduate tend to be fringe NHL-ers anyway. Your major stars in the NHL are in college maybe a year, some don’t even go, and a ton aren’t in school past like seventh grade in reality. The only thing they can do is hockey. They’d be lost without it.

While a lot of football players don’t do much on campus (and actually we’d be much better off if too large a number only did nothing instead of bad), they have to be there three years. A good portion of them do get somewhat close to a degree if they want, and a good portion go back and get it even while playing, no matter how much of a star. Their options are a little more varied.

Magary covered this yesterday, but one thing hockey and football probably do have in common is searching out players whose life is only the sport they play. This is much easier for hockey scouts, and probably getting more and more difficult for football scouts and GMs. But you’ve seen what hockey minds think of any player who shows any personality or outside interests. Hell, we made fun of Jonathan Toews’s and his interest in green science, because it was fun to do so while also happy that he actually did have an outside interest. But do you think there were some in the Hawks front office who worried his new passions led to his dip in production? You better believe there were.

Unlike football, hockey has the ability to change the things that make it destructive. And at times, it feels like they want to but don’t know how. But it’s not as urgent as football, which is probably why they’ll stick with half-measures for the meantime.

Everything Else

I suppose, and hope, one day that Roberto Luongo will become something of a case-study, if not a union martyr, of a player who becomes demonized simply because he accepted a contract that was offered to him. How evil.

Luongo retired today, and there will be some in Vancouver angry at him for not doing the LTIR limbo to save them from the cap-recapture penalty. Which is just the dumbest rule in hockey, if not sports, but then the dumbest rule in sports probably should exist in hockey. It’s definitely something the players’ union should come after in the next CBA negotiations, but probably won’t after their satisfied that they’ll get to go play in an Olympics no one will watch from Beijing and everyone will forget happened like three weeks after. It is their ball of yarn.

And it would be easy to just say, “Well the Canucks are at fault for offering him that,” (and fun, too) but they did it under a different CBA and all they were doing was locking down a team linchpin at the time. It’s a long time ago now, but Luongo signed that deal before the 2009-2010 season, when he was coming off a .920 season with the Canucks and was only 30 years old.

Luongo is lucky in some ways that that contract won’t be the only thing talked about as far as his legacy. He’s unlucky in that anything else that comes with it probably won’t shine all that bright.

It’s hard to discuss Luongo without discussing the playoff flameouts. There’s no way to coat the seven surrendered in Game 6 in ’09, or the 16 he gave up in the three games in Vancouver in ’10, or the .738 SV% in Boston in ’11. These are the facts of the case. But unlike anyone else on that team, Bob never really hid from it, and never tried to lower how much it hurt him that he didn’t come up big in the team’s biggest moments. And he could have used any of the Sedins no disappearing when it mattered, or the Canucks not having an actual top pairing d-man at any time. or Kesler’s body falling apart. You couldn’t find any of those guys when the questions came. Thing 1 or 2, or Kesler, or Bieksa, or Edler all were never heard from in a postgame dressing room. But Bob was always in front of a microphone.

It was that upfront, honest nature that eventually turned most’s opinion on him. A clear sense of humor on social media certainly didn’t hurt. It was bullshit that in the midst of the Vancouver meltdown, he had to tell the press his contract “sucked.” It didn’t suck. He earned that. And his departure from the city and team that no longer wanted him and where he didn’t enjoy playing was delayed merely because he’d played well enough to earn that deal before.

Perhaps there will be no bigger example of a player who was only viewed on his contract than Luongo. He’ll retire with the 10th best all-time SV%, which means he walks with giants. He’ll probably end up being a Hall of Famer, but in reality he should be in the Hall Of Very Good. Never won a Vezina, won only a Jennings, though did finish 2nd in the Hart Trophy once. He’s got a couple gold medals, one as a starter, so that’s something (though I would argue he wasn’t terribly great in 2010 but having a defense consisting of five eventual Norris winners certainly helps).

Perhaps now that contract won’t come into any discussion of Luongo’s career. Those playoff performances will, and that’s fair. Though I’d like to point out he’ll retire with a better playoff SV% than Pekka Rinne, yet nothing ever seems to be Rinne’s fault when it goes balls-up for the Preds. But ha, nothing ever bad happens in Nashville and everyone there is just so wonderful and perfect, don’t you know?

He certainly provided us with more than enough material. He was always an entertaining watch in whatever capacity. And that sort of honesty and personality should be something every player feels free to show but never does. The NHL will miss him, though I doubt it’ll realize it.