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The Zak Zone

October 5, 2011

Today marks the beginning of a very important season to me: Hockey season.

Although, I will admit that last week's chilly temperatures and rain/snowy mix came a little too early, it's never too early for hockey season to begin.

Hockey is a special sport for me as I grew up playing the indoor version on roller skates.

Yes, I said roller skates, not those silly in-lines that came along much later, but good old-fashioned roller skates.

The majority of my free time, and the majority of my parents' vacation funds, was poured into this hobby.

I didn't play many school sports, but in a good week, I spent four or five nights at the skating rink.

Thursday nights were open rink hockey games; Friday and Saturday nights were recreational skating; and Sunday nights were official Reynoldsville Lazers practice nights.

So, hockey holds a special place in my heart, but I will say the hockey season is a long one.

It begins in October and ends near the beginning of June — one of the hottest months of the year.

It's so hot in some areas that time of year, it's difficult to keep the ice in good enough shape to even make a solid skating surface.

Nevertheless, this is the beginning of the season, and just like every other season's beginning, I have high hopes.

My beloved Pittsburgh Penguins — and yes, I'm a "homer" — made a run that impressed many last year despite a plethora of injuries to their star players.

This year, though, injuries are still on the front of our minds as fans, with news that Sidney Crosby will start the season on the injured reserve list more than 10 months after sustaining a concussion.

The NHL has looked at rule changes that will help to avoid concussions and punish "head-hunters" more sternly in the future, but many of the rule changes they have introduced remain vague.

In international hockey, any shot to the head is penalized — typically with a game misconduct — and players are often suspended for future games, as well.

Some argue that advancements in modern equipment have brought on this problem, as players are so certain that their equipment will protect them, they will attack more violently and hit even harder.

While this may be part of the problem, I hope that the NHL, and the NFL, too, are aware that the kids who idolize these superstars are watching and mimicking every move their favorite players make.

Making rule changes like the automatic icing — which eliminates the possibility of two attackers rushing towards a puck, setting up an unnecessary collision — would make the game safer all around.

Don't get me wrong, though. I'm not one of those extremists who hopes they take every hit out of hockey. I just think safety should come first, and the players who are just out there to hurt the other team's players should be punished.

I have no problem with a good, old-fashioned hockey fight, but I can't stand it when people try to compare fighting in hockey to illegal hits that leave players injured.

When two players engage in a fight, they willingly drop the gloves and go fist-to-fist with each other, but every time Matt Cooke — a player for my beloved Penguins — delivered a cheap shot last year, I was the first to call for a suspension.

There's no room in this sport for deliberately injuring others who are unsuspecting and defenseless.

Cooke — often considered a monster on the ice, but a teddy bear off — has been labeled a changed man heading into this season, and I hope these reports are true.

I love a player that plays with the intensity that Cooke possesses, but I love this game too much to see players like Crosby and Boston Bruin Marc Savard sit on the sidelines.

And it would be even worse if the cheap shots extended into youth hockey, and we start hearing stories about young kids with concussions missing time.

The higher-ups of the NHL need to step up, take responsibility for the rule changes and stop worrying so much about ratings. Good hockey will breed ratings, and good hockey will come if you eliminate the cheap shots that eliminate the league's best players from contention.

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