NHL: Yet again we are talking about headshots

Andy Sutton’s hit on Jordan Leopold in last night’s Senators-Penguins game nicely illustrates that the new “lateral backpressure” rule doesn’t address the NHL’s real problem. Skip ahead to the one minute mark for a good slow-motion look.

I have one problem, and one problem only, with this hit – but it’s a big problem. Andy Sutton very intentionally and deliberately targets Leopold’s head.  Leopold is clearly in a vulnerable position and doesn’t see Sutton coming, which means Sutton can apply any hit he chooses – and he chooses to avoid contact with Leopold’s body and hit only the head.  Notice the way Sutton spins off of Leopold into the boards?  That type of spin-off is the same you see in a head-on car crash, where one swerving driver is trying to avoid the collision and doesn’t quite make it. Notice that term trying to avoid, because that’s really what Sutton does here.  He specifically tries to avoid Leopold’s body, so that he can transfer all of his energy into Leopold’s head.

Sutton’s defenders point out, correctly, that Leopold had his head down, that Sutton kept his elbow at his side, that this is not a “lateral backpressure” hit, but a head-on (no pun intended) open-ice hit, and that based on those criteria this is currently a legal NHL hit, a “hockey play” as has become popular vernacular recently.  This is all true, but I counter that this should not be a legal NHL hit for one simple, clear reason: a hit that specifically targets the head (solely or primarily) is, and should always be regarded as, intent to injure.

At this point, there is abundant evidence, both from scientific studies of the long-term effect of concussions and from the observable on-ice consequences of hits to the head, to demonstrate that a head-hit is one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous, play that a hockey player can make.  Be it the McSorley stick to Brashear’s head, Bertuzzi’s punch to Steve Moore (or Matt Johnson’s to Jeff Beukeboom), the slapshot to the noggin that ended Mike Richter’s career, or any of the assorted interchangeable “lateral backside” hits of the past three seasons (Mike Richards and Matt Cooke get gold stars) we have all seen the ugly consequences of a hard hit applied to the head.

Furthermore, there is absolutely no reason the NHL should tolerate one player specifically targeting another player’s head.  These types of hits do not make the game more exciting or more entertaining.  As a long-time hockey fan, I see the value and the role of the big hit and the hockey fight, both of which I have spoken out to defend.  They are a part of the fabric of the game, major momentum changers, and fantastically entertaining.  A hit to the head is none of those things.  It is an ugly incident, a momentum killer when, as often happens, it is followed by ten minutes of bringing a player out on a stretcher, it embarrasses the league as the hit gets played over and over again on sports news networks, and it can diminish the quality of the overall game if the concussed player happens to be among a team’s top scorer.

Let’s also remember that these types of hits have never been part of the sport.  In fact, they are a recent development.  The NHL’s talking points, repeated ad nauseum after the GM meeting that gave us the “lateral backside” rule, would have us believe that these hits are a consequence of increased speed and open ice, a nasty side effect of a very desirable improvement in the game.  That’s probably true in small part, but any hockey fan can tell you that there is one main cause for this kind of hitting: the NHL’s asinine zero-tolerance approach to “retaliation” means that players can no longer defend themselves or their teammates, and thanks to the “it’s not in the rulebook” argument, these kinds of hits will generally go unpunished, no matter how much sleep Colin Campbell may lose.

This is not a unique circumstance.  In the 1980s and 1990s, the NHL struggled with epidemics of slew-footing and hits targeting the knee.  Then they passed rules against both and started handing out penalties and supplemental discipline, and now how often do we see a slew foot or a deliberate hit to the knee in an NHL game? Four or five times a season maybe?  Meanwhile, hardly a game goes by without at least one ugly head-only hit.

The solution here is a clear rule barring players from targeting the head, solely or primarily, when applying a check.  I will reiterate the rule change I have proposed before:

(1) Any hit that either (a) contacts only the head or (b) contacts the head before any other part of the body, whether intentional or unintentional on the part of the player initiating the hit, should be a minor penalty.

(2) Any hit where, in the referee’s determination, the player initiating the hit deliberately (a) targetted only the head or (b) targetted the head before any other part of the body should be a match penalty.

Granted, it might require some word-tweaking from those more familiar with the rulebook than I am, but a rule like this would address the specific problem and still protect the integrity of the game.  Sutton could still punish Leopold with a devastating check, but he would be penalized for the hit in the video above.  It wouldn’t exactly be difficult to hit Leopold’s body – in fact, it would take less effort than the precision head-strike Sutton did apply.  One of my favorite things about this hit, in terms of illustrating my argument, is that no one can argue that “Leopold tried to dodge the hit and that’s why it just hit his head,” as they did with the Richards-Booth hit and several others.

My plea to fellow hockey fans is to please refrain from the slippery-slope argument that says that outlawing one form of hitting is going to lead to taking hitting out of hockey altogether.  The NHL has outlawed types of hits before (boarding, for instance, or knee-on-knee hits) and we still have a physical game.

Yes, a rule like this might occasionally result in a minor penalty for an unintended hit to the head – but as I have said before, the NHL already awards minor penalties for unintentionally clearing the puck out of play and for unintentionally breaking another player’s stick.  Are we really advocating a league where broken sticks and pucks in the crowd are treated more harshly than intentionally injurious and potentially career-ending attacks on fellow players?

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