January 19, 2011
If we've learned anything this season about the NHL's "Rule 48" banning blindside and lateral hits to the head it's that, like nearly every other form of League supplemental discipline, it's far too malleable.
Tom Kostopoulos's(notes) hit that broke the jaw of Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brad Staurt earned him a six-game suspension; the way the NHL described the hit leaves it outside the scope of the rule, yet the Calgary Flames forward was banned anyway.
The David Steckel hit/collision/call-it-what-you-will on Sidney Crosby(notes) (video) in the Winter Classic was deemed incidental contact rather than "a hit" by the NHL; according to Rule 48, that's enough wiggle room to ignore that the head was "the principle point of contact."
Crosby hasn't played since Jan. 5 due to the concussion he suffered there and aggravated on a subsequent hit from Victor Hedman(notes). Lost in the hullaballoo over David Shoalts' news item about Crosby boycotting the All-Star Game (that he suddenly re-framed as an opinion piece later on Tuesday) was that the whole leak was a trial balloon sent up by someone outraged over the NHL's head-shot policy.
And it flew.
The Crosby injury has sparked a wave of activism to ban all contact with the head that no player on a stretcher ever has. Perhaps because his concussion followed other prominent ones (David Perron(notes), Matthew Lombardi(notes)) this season, or because it occurred under a new rule that was designed to minimize head injuries in the NHL, but hasn't yet.
Whatever the case, the sentiment this week from different corners of the hockey world is clear, as Pierre LeBrun of ESPN wrote:
Regardless of how you feel about David Steckel's collision/hit on Crosby in the Winter Classic, the question must now be raised about whether it's time to push Rule 48 even further. Ban all hits to the head, period, regardless of intent.
Making the loudest noise? The player agents.
It's always discomforting to hear agents talking about fundamental changes to the on-ice product, because there's a sense they're dealing in asset management rather than the betterment of the game. Easier for them to say "ban all hits to the head" than to really explore prevention and treatment, when it means their clients are taking concussion tests instead of triggering their incentive clauses.
Nonetheless, the agents are the forefront of this fight after Pat Brisson's words in the Globe & Mail yesterday:
"If you accidentally hit someone with your stick and cut them, well, too bad, you get a penalty," Brisson said. "The league needs another step forward [with the head-shots rule].
"If you accidentally hit someone on the head, you should be suspended for a game. It makes it easier on everyone if there is a penalty and a suspension. Players will be more careful."
Brisson, who is one of the most powerful player agents in the NHL as the co-director of Creative Artists Agency's hockey division along with J.P. Barry, plans to lobby for more teeth for the head-shots rule. He wants his fellow agents to join him.
"It is our job to be a voice for the players," he said. "When the Titanic sunk in 1912 there were not enough lifeboats so they changed the rules. The brain is the same one players had 45 or 50 years ago but their bodies are much different. They are much bigger and faster. The hits are much harder."
As is the equipment, of course, but (allegedly) reducing player safety for the sake of ... well, player safety, is going to be a tough sell as always.
Barry spoke with the Globe & Mail today that brings other voices to the forefront on the "head contact" ban:
"I am supportive of a football-type rule," said Barry, who noted that it shouldn't be up to hockey operations to decide if a hit was intentional or not because "it's impossible to get it right. The football rule eliminates any uncertainty. It sends a message to the players - that you just can't hit anybody in the head anymore."
"It's not just helmet-to-helmet hits," Anderson said in a telephone interview. "Hits to the head that are flagrant and egregious and against the rules, we're going to circle back and take a look at them. The events of [Sunday] were certainly disturbing to all of us."
The NFL has enacted rules in recent years to protect players, including quarterbacks and wide receivers who are deemed to be defenseless on plays. Defenders first were barred from delivering helmet-to-helmet hits on such players. Last offseason, those protections were extended to make other hits to the head - those with a defender's shoulder or forearm - illegal.
That process hasn't been perfect. Neither would the NHL's. Forget the dynamics of a Zdeno Chara(notes) delivering a hit to a player a foot shorter; the fact is that lowering one's head is a tactical move for puck-handlers, and a ban on any contact with the head will beg for that advantage to be exploited. And if your argument is that players who put themselves in prone positions shouldn't result in the hitter getting a "head shot" penalty, then we're right back where we are under Rule 48 in which every hit to the head is a snowflake and there's more time gleaning intent and body position than there is spent changing the culture.
But the culture is changing. Take a look at this report from Vancouver Island late last year:
Head-shot bans have been in effect internationally and in the OHL, as we covered in this post about whether hitting left the game at that level.
LeBrun spoke with former NHLPA chief Paul Kelly for his "ban the head shots piece," and got this:
Two years ago, former NHL Players' Association executive director Paul Kelly attended a GMs meeting in which he called for a new rule that would essentially ban all hits to the head. Kelly, now the executive director of U.S. College Inc., told ESPN.com on Tuesday that, under the NHLPA's proposal that year, the new rule read that "a hit to the head is a check delivered on a player who is not aware of the impending hit and therefore unable to protect or defend himself, and the checking player intentionally or recklessly targets and makes contact with the head of the opposing player with any part of his body including hand, forearm, elbow or shoulder."
North-south, east-west, blindside or straight on, that rule was much more encompassing. "I applauded the move by the GMs when they made it last year because I thought it was a step in the right direction," Kelly said. "I do think that the rule we proposed a year earlier went further, and going further is necessary if we're going to protect players in this game. The players are bigger, faster and stronger."
There's momentum for it to go further. It will be a topic in the next CBA negotiation. It has the backing of agents that are prominent voices in the NHLPA. The old school guard among the NHL's GMs suddenly find themselves defending the fundamentals of what's been NHL hockey in the face of the League's biggest star getting his eggs scrambled with no recourse.
It's a cultural issue as much as it is a safety issue. The NHL I grew up watching had the rock'em sock'em hits (like those of Scott Stevens), and I'd be lying if I said that isn't a reason I'm a fan today. Yet in looking back at the comments in a Pass/Fail we did last October on the Mayo Clinic's suggestion that all hits to the head be banned, it's clear I'm a dinosaur. Most read like this one from reader ‘wtfk':
"I can't see any reason to allow hits to the head. With 60 percent of all concussions coming from hits to the head, it looks like a huge portion can be avoided by treating it like high sticking. We assume today that no one deliberately commits a high-stick penalty, and that even careful violators go to the box because they violated. The same should be true with hits to the head. That said, players who commit any other penalty involving a hit to the head should be penalized more stringently, and the league should follow through by further studying the situations in which head injuries, such as the way the icing is currently handled. It's not dissimilar to the long process that was necessary to find a safe middle ground in protecting the goaltender. That situation is not perfect, but it's better than it was in the 80's."
My fears about a ban on head shots is that we're leaving it in the hands of the most hypocritical, inconstant and daft disciplinary system in pro sports. Will a total ban actually ban anything totally, or will there be nuance? Will injuries still play a role? Intent? Sometimes it feels like we just want to broaden the scope for more head-smacking moments of contradiction from the League.
My other fear: The inevitable.
C'mon, you know it and I know it: If you ban any contact with the head during a play, intentional or accidental, there will come a time when fighting is put in trial.
Yes, it's two combatants choosing to square off rather than one getting kabonged by the other unknowingly. But if the battle cry is player safety, the illogic of banning any contact to the head except for fists (which have a winking acceptance in the NHL but don't in many other levels of hockey) will become a raging debate.
How far are we willing to push this?