While the debate over hits to the head, concussions and fighting in hockey rages on, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies forward Anthony Verret lies in an Amos, Que., hospital.
The 18-year-old underwent successful emergency surgery on Tuesday night to repair four facial fractures and damage to his ocular nerve after a hit from Gatineau Olympiques defenceman Guillaume Rousseau in a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League game last Saturday.
“He’s not in perfect condition, but he’s doing well,” said Huskies head coach Andre Tourigny shortly after speaking with Verret on Wednesday morning. “The surgery was successful and the doctors are saying everything will be fine -- so time will tell - but for now the news is good.”
From all reports, Rousseau’s hit would be considered a “hockey play” by NHL standards and there was no penalty assessed at the time. Both players were chasing after a loose puck when the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Rousseau caught the diminutive 5-foot-9, 159-pound Verret in the face with a shoulder.
“It’s not a bad hit, meaning it wasn’t an elbow or that (Rousseau) didn’t jump,” said Tourigny. “But the shoulder was right to the head. Basically, that’s the debate in hockey right now because the hit was to the head.
"Was it legal or wasn’t it legal if the player didn’t jump or there was no elbow? Still, the contact was right to the head and that’s the debate right now.”
Tourigny said he argued vehemently with the QMJHL’s on-ice officials over the hit during Saturday’s 5-4 loss to the Olympiques in Gatineau, but was told that the referees weren’t in a good position to see the collision. He adds that while Verret was still conscious it was very clear the 18-year-old was seriously hurt.
“He was confused,” said Tourigny, who adds that medical staff from both teams did an excellent job of tending to Verret immediately. “He wasn’t able to talk because it was so painful… it’s never fun to see that type of situation and see your player suffer.
“It was a hit directly to the head and we are always talking about the safety of the players so you must make that call in my opinion.”
When a player is injured – even if a penalty isn’t called – QMJHL disciplinarian Raymond Bolduc has the power to review the incident and hand out suspensions if a team files a complaint. According to QMJHL media relations director Karl Jahnke, the league is reviewing the hit on Verret since the Huskies have already filed their grievance.
In his own defence, Rousseau believes the hit was legal and that his contact wasn’t with Verret’s head, but rather with the shoulder. He also told the Rouyn-Noranda-based newspaper La Frontière that Verret’s head hit his own shoulder after the initial contact.
“When I got there to hit him both of us looked at each other at the same time as he was taking the puck and I hit him on the shoulder,” said Rousseau in a translation of what he told the French-language newspaper.
“I have no ill will against Anthony,” he added. “We ran into each other a few times in bars over the summer, and I knew that my check was clean, but I didn’t think he wasn’t going to get back up.”
And while Tourigny believes Rousseau did not intend to hurt Verret, he’s not buying the notion that the forward’s facial damage was caused by anything other than the initial contact.
“It was just [Rousseau’s] shoulder to the head,” said Tourigny. “His head didn’t hit anything after [the initial contact].”
Recently the QMJHL followed the Ontario Hockey League’s lead in switching to soft-capped padding for all of its players. According to Tourigny, despite a short lag in getting the equipment for the start of the season, his team was wearing the newly mandated gear though he was unsure about Gatineau.
The QMJHL has tried, like other junior leagues, to curb hits to the head through head-checking penalties and stiffer suspensions for offenders. League commissioner Gilles Courteau has also talked about the possibility of banning fighting outright in order to better protect his players.
However, the QMJHL’s future resolve likely provides little comfort to Verret from his hospital bed.
“When you hurt your arm, the worst case is that you will be injured for a couple of weeks,” said Tourigny. “With the head you never know, so for sure we’re worried about him, Tony is a really good guy.”
Translation provided by Marie-Helene Savard.