The NHL has got to do something about headhunting.

Still recovering from my septoplasty surgery, so I’ve spent most of this beautiful Philadelphia Sunday sitting inside watching NHL Center Ice.  I’ve just watched Marc Savard of the Bruins carried off the ice of Pittsburgh’s Mellon Arena on a stretcher, after left wing Matt Cooke tried to disconnect his head from his body.

Edit: new video below.  This one’s less dramatic and shows more context.

As is far too common these days, Cooke saw that Savard was vulnerable, came in from his blind spot, and hit Savard in such a way as to maximize impact to the head – and, as is almost as common, there was no penalty on the ice.  I expect Cooke will be suspended once the league reviews the hit, but in the meantime, the Bruins lose one of their most important offensive players, and the Penguins get to keep their two points.  Cooke will lose a few games worth of pay, but he will ensure job stability in the salary-cap era by being a guy who will “deliver a big hit.”

It seems rare these days to get through a single NHL game without one of these hits, and I have to say that it’s become disgusting.  I am a die-hard NHL fan, a defender of the hockey fight and the big hit, but I cannot stomach the way these players target each others’ heads, especially with the research that has recently been emerging about the long-term consequences of sports concussions.  While league officials and GMs debate the merits of penalizing this kind of play, athletes are seeing their lives shortened and worsened by plays that should never be allowed in any reputable league.

Meanwhile, international hockey leagues carefully protect the heads of their players.  As we recently saw in the Olympics, IIHF rules forbid players from playing without a helmet, and hand out swift justice for hits to the head.  I do feel that the IIHF goes too far (if a player wants to continue playing without his helmet, for instance, I don’t see why that should be penalized) but I do think the NHL needs to take action – definitive, clear action – to stop the headhunting that pollutes this league.

My proposed solution for the NHL is as follows:

(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.

At this point, I believe it is safe to say that these sorts of hits will result in injury.  Therefore, any player who intentionally hits in this fashion intends to injure the other player, which justifies a match penalty.

The main objection most people have to this argument is against the “unintentional” hits to the head.  My response is that the NHL already awards a two-minute power play when a player (a) breaks the stick of an opponent, even unintentionally, or (b) clears the puck out of play, even unintentionally.  I find it pretty hard to accept that a broken stick or puck out of play are less tolerable than a player’s health and career being risked with a hit to the head.

I have no wish to see hitting reduced in the NHL, but I do want to see these blind-side head-only or head-first hits stopped.  I am tired of the argument that any hit where a guy keeps his skates on the ice and his elbows down is a “clean hit.”  They are only “clean” because the rulebook says otherwise, which is a major oversight.  Hockey players know how devastating those types of hits are, or they wouldn’t throw them so often.  I do believe that a guy has to keep his head up, and I like to see the big hit against the player who watches his pass or skates with his head down across the blue-line – but I want that hit to be delivered to his body, or his hips, or his chest.  I don’t want to see another player victimize him by clipping him across the head.

Until the NHL does something drastic about this kind of play, nothing is going to change, and the game will continue to suffer for it.



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