Safety should come first

Of course we got lost in the hyperbole. My God, our Olympics started with tragedy, blossomed into incompetence and then devolved into our national terror of mediocrity as our supposed front-runner athletes failed time and again to bring home the metal. We couldn’t own a local pick-up game, let alone an Olympic podium.

Just as everything was looking gloomiest, an almost un-Canadian expertise overcame our competitors (especially the women) and the gold began piling up like so many Deadheads at a medicinal marijuana convention. By the time the men’s hockey final was over, we were positively American in our ebullience, the 28.6 million of us (which is, essentially, everyone in Canada) who watched at least part of the game revelling in the victory of the game we claim to own.

Lost in the deluge of relief and beer was that the final was an awfully good hockey game. Just as they do in the Stanley Cup finals, the (mostly) NHL stars put away the petty brutality that pervades regular-season games and played with an expertise we sometimes forget they have. Vancouver is what hockey could be like all the time: tough, gritty, but with the sense that putting the puck in the net is more important than beating in our brains.

Now it’s back to the regular season where we are once again bombarded with images of yet another elite stick handler reduced to a quivering wreck by some head-hunting goon. Far worse, however, has been the reaction from the decision-makers and influencers who control our sport. The NHL, for one, failed to punish the recidivist headhunting Matt Cooke. Even more appalling was the sight of hockey commentators, who, while lamenting the injury to Marc Savard — excusing it as “part of the game” — stood in front of a green screen so awash in a montage of nauseating, head-crunching body checks, even the most hardy had to avert their eyes.

It is the shame of our national game that so many of our best and brightest are being reduced to quivering prone on the ice with their careers in question while we dither on whether the hit was from the blindside. The testosterone that our lady-folk claim rules our brains has never looked so stupid.

Not that we hockey-mad Canucks have a monopoly on stupidity. NASCAR, which sometimes claims to represent U.S. values almost as comprehensively as hockey does Canada’s, recently ruled on a similar act of unconscionable violence when Carl Edwards admitted he deliberately “tapped” Brad Keselowski, sending him flying off Atlanta Speedway at high speed. Unlike the Savard-Cooke incident, all involved emerged unscathed, though seething nonetheless.

NASCAR, using the same foresight as the NHL’s brain trust, “penalized” Edwards by putting him on probation for three races. What seems almost more off-putting than his behaviour is Edward’s confidence in NASCAR’s perfidy that he could admit out loud that he deliberately crashed into Keselowski, knowing there would be little or no repercussions. I’d like to think even the fools that run the NHL might have been spurred into action had Cooke admitted, “Oh, sure, I was aiming for his head.”

Am I the only one who thinks auto racing is a sport best served by more safety governance, not less? Yes, the cars are safe. Yes, most of these incidents result in nothing more than a couple of cars spinning like hyperactive Yu-Na Kims. And, yes, the various air brakes, safety fences, five-point harnesses, etc., are to be lauded for their efficiency. But you don’t have to be Sir Isaac Newton to appreciate that a two-tonne automobile travelling in excess of 300 kilometres an hour is one boatload of mayhem-producing momentum.

To quote Canada’s leading comic, Russell Peters, sooner or later, “Someone gonna get hurt real bad.” If it’s a racer, even a Dale Earnhardt, Sr., the sport will, like hockey with its concussive issues, survive and move on. But errant automobiles travelling at high speeds seemingly have minds of their own. Eighty-four spectators died in the infamous 1955 Le Mans disaster that almost led to a ban of motor-sports. Another incident–the death of 10 spectators hit by Alfonso de Portago’s flying Ferrari — closed the famed Mille Miglia road race for good.

Safety precautions are far superior today, making a repeat of those catastrophes almost impossible. But it is always the unimaginable that causes the most havoc. Every sport walks a fine line between safety and competitiveness. I think both NASCAR and the NHL are erring on the wrong side of that line and, judging by their recalcitrance in dealing with the obvious, seemingly only a fatality will spur them into serious action.

Photograph by: Geoff Burke, Getty Images For NASCAR, National Post