On Nov. 3, Connor McDavid was in full flight at Edmonton’s Rexall Place when he got tangled up with the Flyers’ Brandon Manning and Michael Del Zotto, lost his footing, and slammed his left shoulder into the end boards.
The velocity of his approach combined with the boards’ unforgiving permanence broke McDavid’s left clavicle. The Oilers rookie has not played since.
He is expected to return after the All-Star break. The center will have missed approximately three months, an absence that indicates the severity of the injury. The length of his sidelining most likely cost McDavid the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s leading rookie.
In some ways, McDavid was lucky. Derek Zike was unlucky.
In January 2009, Zike was playing in Ann Arbor for the Chicago Fury, Marc Kapsalis’s Triple A midget team. Zike fell headfirst into the end boards. Kapsalis describes the play as similar to Travis Roy’s fall at Boston University’s Walter Brown Arena in 1995: a fluke thing with an unfortunate outcome. Zike had fractured his C-5 and C-6 vertebrae.
The injury left Zike, a native of Fishers, Ind., with some movement in his arms but none in his legs. Zike has since graduated from Miami University. Kapsalis still cries when he recalls that day.
But it gives Kapsalis some solace that Zike’s injury inspired the creation of SAFIR Hockey boards. It is a system Kapsalis believes is safer than the industry’s current standards.
“What’s currently available is like hitting a brick wall,” said Kapsalis. “Above the cap rail, there’s a little bit of movement and movement in the glass. But there’s no system where there’s any forgiveness in the dasher boards at all. Our system allows the boards to move backwards when they’re hit and impacted with enough force. The energy is managed properly.”
Kapsalis is not an engineer. But he found one of the best in the business to help him with his project.
Initially, Kapsalis contacted Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute via former athletic director Jim Knowlton, a longtime friend. A team of approximately 20 engineering students tried to devise safer boards. They did not arrive at a solution.
Next, Kapsalis cold-called Dean Sicking, an engineering professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Sicking is well known in automobile safety. He is the former director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, a research organization at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Sicking developed the SAFER barriers used in motorsports to absorb and distribute energy in high-speed crashes. He has influenced highway guardrail technology.
“I picked up the phone, which I don’t normally do,” Sicking recalled. “He had this idea for hockey boards, which he pitched to me over the phone. It was interesting. I told him, ‘In the last 6-7 years, I’ve had over 100 calls like this. I’ve taken 2-3 of them. Don’t get your hopes up.’ He came down two weeks later to Nebraska to meet and pitch the idea to me.”
Kapsalis’s proposal interested Sicking. The issue with current systems is how they move. CheckFlex, the one mostly used in NHL rinks, moves at the top along with the glass. But the boards do not give at approximately 12 to 18 inches off the ground, the height at which headfirst impact typically occurs.
“What we wanted with a wall that can move and displace was a wall that can reduce the force level and extend the duration of the event,” said Cody Stolle, research assistant professor at the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, who worked with Sicking on the SAFIR Hockey design. “By doing both, you’re reducing the load on the body and decreasing the likelihood of acceleration that can cause spinal injury or concussion.”
Stolle and Sicking’s initial research showed a common problem. In less serious incidents, when players crashed sideways into the boards, they would spin and displace force by reducing the acceleration on their bodies.
The bad ones happened when players fell, became perpendicular to the boards, and approached headfirst. Neither the head nor neck could spin to displace force. The head, neck, and spine would absorb the energy of the impact. On Dec. 31 at Gillette Stadium, Denna Laing of the NWHL’s Boston Pride fell headfirst into the end boards. According to her parents, Laing has limited movement in her arms and no feeling in her legs.
Older systems are not forgiving. They are built into a concrete foundation. They have sections of steel support and plywood bases. Players are always on the wrong end in collisions with such materials.
“The body became a missile into a wall,” Stolle said, “rather than a normal body that could flex, move, and get out of the way more effectively.”
Stolle and Sicking had to figure out how to dissipate the energy involved in a collision. The dangerous car accidents are the straight-on crashes into stationary objects. At racetracks, SAFER barriers absorb some of the energy created when cars smash into the walls. The trick was to devise boards robust enough to stand up to standard checks and pucks fired off the walls, but that could also displace energy during headfirst collisions.
Their solution was a system using cables and springs as tension elements, similar to roadside barriers. If a player slams into the SAFIR Hockey system, the boards move by as much as 6 inches to reduce G loads. Springs then return the boards to their original position.
Testing is taking place in Lincoln, Neb., on the grounds of Cornerstone Christian Church, where Stolle’s father is a pastor. Testing involves sleds, dummies, sensors, and high-speed cameras like those used in the automotive industry to determine how the SAFIR Hockey boards reduce the G loads on impacts.
“With a rigid wall, what we saw was the head immediately stops moving and the entire body flexes, similar to an accordion, directly behind the head,” Stolle said. “It ended up propelling our test dummy upward and breaking its neck when it hit at 15 miles per hour. With our wall, we saw the wall immediately began to shift and displace after impact. The dummy was brought safely to a stop. The orientation of the body didn’t change. The dummy didn’t suffer significant deceleration.”
The system could go to market. Sicking is approaching this stage cautiously.
“I’m the one standing in the way,” Sicking said. “I want to make sure there’s an acceptable level of safety improvements. I want to make sure we’re totally confident in achieving a significant risk of injury before we start putting them up.”
If the system makes it to market, switching to SAFIR Hockey would require an investment. Kapsalis estimates the boards to cost approximately $200,000 to $250,000 per rink. If a current system costs $150,000, Kapsalis explains a retrofit for SAFIR Hockey boards (20-year projected life span) to require $5,000 extra per year. Kapsalis figures that for standard rinks, it would cost participating families an additional $20 annually.
The NHL has studied alternatives. Dan Craig, senior director of facilities operations, notes that players aren’t the only subjects to be considered for safety.
“It’s not just the safety of the players themselves, but of the patrons behind,” Craig said. “If you start doing a 42-inch board plus an 8-foot panel, and now you want the bottom of that panel of the boards itself to move 3 inches, that top end is going to move over a foot. The patrons sitting there are going to be within jeopardy of injury as well. When we move forward and do research on different products, we not only worry about the safety of the players, but we worry about the patrons and the whole environment.”
Hockey can be a dangerous sport. People are working hard to make it safer.
Bruins burned by uncommon goal
Tuukka Rask had an idea of what was coming. But the Bruins goalie was not in position to shut it down.
“You can’t cheat,” Rask said. “It looks bad. You just have to know what’s going on. You can anticipate the pass going there. But you can’t cheat.”
Rask was describing Andre Burakovsky’s goal in Washington’s 3-2 win over the Bruins on Jan. 5. It was one of the more interesting goals the Bruins have seen, even if it didn’t go their way.
The play started with Burakovsky sending the puck down the right wall to linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov. Once he got rid of the puck, Burakovsky tangled with Matt Beleskey. The engagement forced Burakovsky out of the zone. He should not have been a threat.
Had the Bruins played man-to-man, Beleskey would have kept an eye on Burakovsky. But in their zone defense, Burakovsky was not Beleskey’s concern once he left the zone. Beleskey’s job was to reset at the top of the left circle.
The problem was that after watching Burakovsky leave the zone, the Bruins lost the wing. When Burakovsky recovered and sprinted for the far post, Ryan Spooner didn’t account for his movement. At the same time, Kuznetsov was doing excellent work protecting the puck from Landon Ferraro and Dennis Seidenberg and buying time for his linemate to reenter the play.
Kuznetsov spotted Burakovsky slashing back door. Even then, the Bruins should have been in good shape. Kuznetsov would have to thread his pass through three layers: Ferraro, Spooner, and Colin Miller. But Kuznetsov had a step on Ferraro. Spooner was a shade late to seal off the pass.
Miller was engaged in a net-front tussle with Justin Williams when he should have been playing loose off the forward and positioned higher in the slot.
It took a perfect pass from Kuznet- sov and a skilled finish by Burakovsky to produce a goal.
Everything went right for the Capitals.
From the Bruins’ perspective, even a perfect play should not have been allowed to take place at all.
“If you play defense like we do, which is a zone defense not man-on-man, you try and play half the ice and not cut the seams off,” Rask said. “You keep everybody on the outside. Those passes should never happen in a perfect world. You play man-on-man, it might be a little different. Then you open up more seams. But in our case, it should never happen.”
Schneider won’t bend on pads
As a member of the NHL/NHLPA Competition Committee, Cory Schneider is not afraid of putting his position’s equipment in the crosshairs. The Devils goalie has been active in working toward a solution of making goalie gear standard — and in some cases, smaller.
But as the league considers additional shrinkage prior to the 2016-17 season, Schneider is adamant about the pads being left alone, especially the 11-inch width.
“I’d probably go with the pads, just because they did touch them a few years ago,” Schneider said. “If they come back and say, ‘Well, we didn’t quite get it right the last time, we want to do it again,’ then you kind of open up a can of worms of how many times you’re going to come back and adjust the pads. I think 11 [inches] is a good width. I don’t think we should make them any narrower.”
For goalies, shrinking the pads isn’t a protection issue. The worry is subjecting the hips to even greater wear. It’s neither natural nor healthy for goalies to be dropping into the butterfly from a young age.
“You don’t want to be inverted,” said Schneider. “You don’t want your feet above your knees. They were trying to lower the knee blocks. But you have to have a minimum height to keep your legs level. Otherwise, you’re going to have hip issues if your knees are below the height of your feet.”
Islanders hurting on the back end
Tuesday was Johnny Boychuk Bobblehead Night at Barclays Center. The ex-Bruins defenseman, however, was not in the lineup when 10,000 dolls of his likeness were distributed in Brooklyn. Boychuk missed his fifth straight game because of an injured shoulder. The Islanders expected Boychuk to miss 4-6 weeks from the time of his injury, which took place Dec. 31. The Islanders have also been without fellow right-shot defenseman Travis Hamonic for the last three games because of a lower-body injury. It won’t be easy for coach Jack Capuano’s club to hold serve without the two strongmen.
Canucks’ Higgins is in limbo
The Canucks placed Chris Higgins on waivers last Tuesday. A day later, the former Yale forward cleared, with nobody interested in assuming the $2.5 million he’s due annually through 2017. Higgins is only 32 years old. The left wing scored 12 goals and 24 assists in 77 games for Vancouver last season. But Higgins is the odd man out as general manager Jim Benning tries to make his aging roster younger.
Higgins could still be moved. He played for John Tortorella with the Rangers. Tortorella and the Blue Jackets could use some up-front experience. But the Canucks will most likely have to retain salary to move Higgins.
Smith rebounding well in Florida
Through 43 games, Reilly Smith had scored 12 goals, just one off his total from last year. The ex-Bruin has been most recently riding with Jussi Jokinen and Vincent Trocheck on the Panthers’ second line. Smith was averaging 18:03 of ice time, third most among team forwards after first-liners Aleksander Barkov (19:37) and Jonathan Huberdeau (18:40). Florida coach Gerard Gallant is trusting Smith on the penalty kill (2:09 of shorthanded ice time per game), which is duty Claude Julien never gave the wing. The 24-year-old has become one of Florida’s well-rounded core players. After scoring 20 goals and 31 assists as a first-year Bruin, Smith tailed off with a 13-27—40 season last year. The Bruins knew they were selling low when they traded Smith. The Panthers are enjoying the benefits.
James van Riemsdyk could be out for two months because of a broken foot. As Toronto’s leading scorer (14-15—29), van Riemsdyk’s absence could be the start of the Maple Leafs’ sprint for last place. The Leafs could get future assets for unrestricted free agents-to-be Michael Grabner, Brad Boyes, and Roman Polak. They’d like to get something for Joffrey Lupul, but the winger is under contract through 2018 at $5.25 million annually . . . The inaugural Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank Showdown, which started on Friday, continues on Sunday at MV Ice Arena. Salve Regina, Elmira College, Hobart College, and Curry College are participating. For more information about the tournament, contact Patti Leighton at 774-310-2030 or firstname.lastname@example.org . . . Mike Sullivan and John Hynes will be assistants to Tortorella on Team USA’s World Cup of Hockey entry. Never hurts to put two Boston University minds on staff . . . The Sabres are pleased with the development of Rasmus Ristolainen, their promising 21-year-old defenseman. Through 43 games, Ristolainen was averaging a team-high 24:43 of ice time per game. He has been helped by old hand Josh Gorges as his partner . . . Bobby Farnham will be eligible to play on Jan. 23 against Winnipeg. The North Andover native was tagged with a four-game suspension for smoking St. Louis’s Dmitrij Jaskin on Tuesday. The fine folks at Phillips Andover Academy, Farnham’s alma mater, are not claiming responsibility for such ungentlemanly behavior.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.