Further argument against NHL headshots

The aftermath of Sunday’s Matt Cooke head-shot on Marc Savard has left Savard with an uncertain future and the NHL mired in controversy yet again.  Coming just a day before a meeting of General Managers, the Cooke hit was one more point in an argument the players have made very convincingly all season long that the league must do something to stop this madness.

I don’t read a lot of hockey blogs, but I read Greg Wyshynski at Puck Daddy fairly regularly, and I’m a little disappointed in his approach to this.  For one thing, he gets sidetracked, like a lot of die-hard hockey fans, by the fear that arguments like this one open the door for those who would, in Mike Milbury’s words, “pansify” the sport.  That fear leads him to argue too hard against the pansifiers, and he ends up defending what he should be condemning.

Wysh, I understand your concern.  We’re both hockey fans.  We both love physical, hard, grinding hockey.  We love that the playoffs are a battle of attrition where no player emerges unharmed.  We love what it requires for a person to be a hockey player.  Neither of us wants to see that change.  But as hockey fans, we have to be firm here: targeting the head has never been acceptable in the history of the NHL, and it is not acceptable now.

We may speculate as to why headhunting has become more prevalent– personally I think it’s a combination of the instigator rule diminishing the consequences and better equipment making hits to the body just play hurt less — but regardless of reason, this has become a plague on the NHL, and it’s up to the league to do something about it.

There are two points Wysh makes with which I take issue.  The first is that there is a big difference between the Cooke hit on Savard and the hit early in the season by Mike Richards on David Booth.  Wysh’s point is that the Cooke hit is just a plain old dirty play, while the Richards hit is a valid hockey play, an attempt to separate Booth from the puck.  I agree with this, and the distinction is important – but less important, to me, than what the two plays have in common.  In both cases, one player caught another player in a vulnerable position, and rather than applying a devastating body check, they chose to target the head, and only the head.

The second point Wysh makes is that it’s hypocritical to oppose hits to the head and yet defend fighting, because both carry the risk of brain injury.  Again, I see the argument, but I do think there’s a world of difference between hockey fight and headhunting.  Wysh cites an argument he had with Keith Primeau on TSN’s Off The Record:

“I spoke with Keith… about the head shots issue as it relates to fighting, because I have a problem with fans or pundits screaming “protect the brains!” one minute and then having a winking endorsement of fists slamming against those brains the next. I find it an illogical stance, from a player safety standpoint.

Primeau said the difference was that a player doesn’t ask to be hit to the head, but willfully accepts the risk in a fight. My argument is the player accepts risk by playing in the NHL, and that the League can only do so much to protect them in what is an inherently violent sport.”

With respect to Keith Primeau, who certainly has more personal experience with this than I, his point is valid but his phrasing is off.  The important distinction is that in a fight there is no victim.  Two man enter, as the saying goes, and if only one man leave, at least they both knew those were the terms.  A hockey fight is rarely, if ever, a case of one guy seeing another in a vulnerable position and exploiting him.  A head to the head is just that, every time.

What the NHL GMs are apparently considering right now is a ban on “blindside hits,” or some rule governing shoulder contact with the head.  Neither, to me, gets at the heart of the problem, and both run the risk of doing more damage than good.   As Wysh rightly points out, there is always a risk in any contact sport of a concussion occurring.  There is always a risk of unintentional contact with the head.

I reiterate the rule suggestion that I proposed in my last post:

(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.

Under such a rule, the Richards hit on Booth would be a two-minute minor, and the Cooke hit on Savard would be a match penalty.  Players would still be allowed to apply a “blindside hit” against a guy watching his pass or skating with his head down, provided they went for the body and not the head.  Contact with the head would not automatically be a penalty, provided that it resulted from a clean hit (ie, contact was initiated with the body and the head contact was incidental) and if a hit intended to be clean accidentally resulted in a head-first or head-only hit, the consequences would not be overly severe.  As I said last post, the NHL currently awards a minor penalty for accidentally breaking another player’s stick or accidentally clearing the puck out of play.

Wysh quotes Colin Campbell to the Toronto Star: “it all really comes down to the Richards-Booth hit. … The question is, are we going to shift more responsibility to the hitter than the player being hit?”  Under the rule I’m proposing, the only responsibility on the hitter is to make sure he’s not targeting the head.

The NHL seems to have a knack for addressing problems the wrong way several times before trying the right way (see: the crease rule, video review, the trapezoid, moving the goal line).  In this case I think we have a solution that actually solves the problem at hand – but we need fans and officials to get behind it, and not argue otherwise because they fear the slippery slope.


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