The serious head injury to Denver's Mark Janssens last Saturday, though accidental, has stirred local emotions for Janssens' welfare. It has also focused attention on hockey's violent nature.
Golden Eagle Coach Paul Baxter has been torn all week between defending the sport he loves and risking misunderstanding because of the Janssens situation. But it is his opinion that a sport of artistry and grace, of speed and collision, gets a bad rap.First of all, let's say that Paul Baxter likes the rules of hockey. He likes the new, exceptionally strict rules regarding bench-clearing situations and stick fouls, even the accidental ones, and says they are starting to do their jobs. He wants players to obey the rules, to be responsible about the way they carry and use their sticks and to have a subconscious understanding of what's acceptable.
"Malicious intent outside the rules is unacceptable in any shape, form or manner in any sport and in any walk of life," Baxter says.
It is Baxter's contention, though, that the beanball in baseball and the late-hit forearm to the face of an NFL quarterback are as dangerous and more premeditated than most of what goes on in hockey and that over the past two years there have been more bench-clearing brawls in baseball and the NBA than there have been in pro hockey. Yet, he says, the media tends to classify beanballs and broken quarterbacks as part of the sport while magnifying hockey incidents as mayhem.
"What's more malicious than a baseball pitcher throwing a ball 95 mph at a batter's head - not a brushback but a beanball? That seems to happen six or seven times a year," Baxter says. "In football, a quarterback releases the ball in a vulnerable position and somebody who weighs 80 pounds more delivers a forearm at his face; he's out (suspended) one game, and the quarterback is out four weeks.
"I don't see those sort of things happening in hockey on a regular basis, where a guy is out four weeks or three weeks because of a malicious attempt. It's very isolated," Baxter says.
"I'm not saying it doesn't happen," but he says "it's as infrequent as a pitcher throwing at a batter's head or a defensive player forearming a quarterback after he's released the ball.
"I'm not going to say hockey is a perfect sport, yet I think it's misunderstood at times, and there's a biased view thrown on by the media that isn't fair if you gauge it against all other contact sports," Baxter says.
He says the media is "less familiar" with hockey than other sports and hasn't bothered to delve into the finer points of the game.
"The rinks in the NHL are filled because the game is artistically, aesthetically pleasing. The game is beautiful to watch; it's beautiful to play.
"High intensity, high speed, big impact - that is part of the game," Baxter explains, adding that the enclosed nature of the rink, surrounded by boards and glass, and the nonstop action, as opposed to football's cooling-down period after every play, set hockey apart. And there aren't many other sports in which players carry "tools" that can injure, even accidentally. "Reactionary stuff happens on the ice that a lot of people perceive as the nasty part of the game, yet most times it's a quick, reactionary move as opposed to anything premeditated," Baxter maintains.
That hockey allows players to fight and remain in the game following five-minute penalties is one reason it is perceived as violent. The anti-brawl rule, which suspends the coach for five games and the first player off the bench for 10 games, has helped to cut down on bench-clearing incidents, and two-minute instigator penalties deter some fights, but individual battles still break out.
"Maybe it beats the alternative of not dropping the gloves," Baxter offers. Sticks are harder weapons than fists. "When playing at high speed, frustration sets in, and spontanaeity at times gets the better of common sense. It's not so much I'm an advocate of fighting; rather, I think it's the preferred alternative. I believe in the release valve of fighting, at times," Baxter says.
For one thing, men on skates on ice haven't the stability or leverage a boxer or fighting baseball/basketball/football players would have to throw punches. "Outside of the other night, I've never seen anybody seriously injured in a fight," says Baxter.
Baxter is cautious here, not wanting to downplay the Janssens tragedy. That occurred when Janssens was pushed over backward, his helmet flew off a foot above the surface and Janssens' bare head hit the ice, causing a concussion, seizures and small blood clot. Janssens was released from the hospital Wednesday and is back in Denver. His hockey career is questionable, though Janssens wants to continue and says he blames no one for his injury.
Baxter himself suffered five hospital-call injuries in his 13-year NHL/World Hockey Association playing career, the two worst being a damaged knee and a concussion - he bled from the ear and didn't regain conciousness until he reached the hospital. His injury was the result of a collision with a teammate, not a fight or high stick, but he at least speaks from the standpoint of having had a scary injury or two.
"There's risk involved in anything you partake in in life. The greater the risk, the greater the reward," Baxter says. The potential for injury in most pro sports is great, but those good enough to make it that far accept the danger. "That's their choice," Baxter says. "God willing, serious injury won't be their fate. I loved the reward. I loved the intangibles of playing the game. I'm in a group of people very fortunate to do something they loved doing and was willing to accept the risks."
Baxter, 33, a former defenseman, also speaks from the standpoint of having been on the giving end. He played 756 games in the WHA and NHL, scored 273 points and spent 2,544 minutes in the penalty box. He is proud of his point total and implies that it shows he was more than just a tough guy. "Played tough, played aggressively - and could play the game, had skill enough to play aggressively for 13 years," is Baxter's self-assessment.
"Did I ever hurt anybody? With a body check, yeah, four or five times - never penalized. Did I try to hurt somebody? Never. Did I try to play as aggressively as possible at all times? Yes."
Are there players who have no conscience? "I don't know of any," Baxter says, adding that if one were on his team, he would understand what's acceptable and abide by it or he wouldn't play.