October 30, 2008
Nashville Predators winger Jordin Tootoo hadn't seen video of the crushing open-ice check by the New York Islanders' Doug Weight that injured Brandon Sutter of the Carolina Hurricanes. But he had heard many of the same issues being raised in its wake, many times before: The calls for increased player safety and respect, and the calls for any hits to the head -- accidental or intentional -- to be penalized and legislated out of the NHL.
Like many gritty energy players, Tootoo's game involves throwing his body around with reckless abandon; and like many of these players, he's been accused of being too aggressive at times. Witness his five-game suspension for punching Stephane Robidas of the Dallas Stars, and situations like the one in Vancouver last March in which there were calls for more suspensions.
But the notion of penalizing legal checks because they happen to involve the head of an opponent is something he feels won't just reduce illegal hits, but have a chilling effect on legal ones as well.
"Hitting's part of the game. If a guy's got his head down, it's part of the game. But if you're meaning to give guys blows to the head, then absolutely it should be looked at by the League," said Tootoo, after the Predators' 4-3 defeat against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday. "But like I said: Hitting's part of the game. It's a man's game. You gotta keep your head up there."
What makes Tootoo an interesting person to weigh in on this topic is not only how he plays but who he is: A player generously listed at 5 foot 9. (Seriously, the guy is built like Ram-Man from the "Masters of the Universe" cartoon.) When he goes to the corner with Chris Pronger -- a player correctly listed at 6 foot 6 -- when isn't Tootoo taking a shot to the head?
"If my head's down, my head's down. If he hits me, he hits me," said Tootoo. Just another consideration in a still-simmering League-wide debate.
Down a few corridors from Tootoo was David Steckel, a Washington Capitals forward and one of the more physical players for the team at that position. He had seen the Sutter hit, and saw what many others did: Weight charging in with his arm lowered, nailing Sutter while the rookie was in a prone position.
"It was just unfortunate," said Steckel.
Unfortunate, but the Hurricanes have said the hit is also something that should be penalized in the future. Steckel, respectfully, disagrees.
"Accidental is accidental," he said. "I think they've done a great job up until this point, compared to the last five years. I don't know the exact numbers, but I would assume that they're down."
Glenn Healy, the NHLPA's director of player affairs, told David Shoalts of the Globe & Mail that there were 65 concussions last season, and 39 of them where from "shoulder-to-head contact." Healy said the NHLPA wants to eliminate that, and detailed some plans with Shoalts:
The first step came last summer when Healy talked the players and the league into testing shoulder pads with softer pads instead of the hard plastic currently used on the shoulder portion of the equipment. This follows the adoption of softer pads on the outside of elbow pads last year, which is considered a success.
The new shoulder pads were made available to the players this season, although given the attachment of some players to equipment going back to their childhood, not all of them are using the new pads. The union and the league will collect information from the players this season and study it next summer to determine the next course of action.
Healy believes legislation against head shots is a last resort, and that appears to be the thought for most players in the game, and those who have played the game at the NHL level. But he also seems to believe that dropping the instigator penalty would be the same kind of panic button move, in his conversation with the Globe:
The NHLPA is not lobbying to revoke the instigator rule, long the bane of those who insist the players can police themselves. These folks insist that if players were not constrained by the threat of a minor penalty for instigating a fight, they would soon beat some sense into the headhunters.
Instead, Healy said he and NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly are showing players a video that depicts players in vulnerable positions and shows their opponents not finishing with a shot to the head or making a different bodycheck.
Will modern-day education be more effective than old-school education; which would have been swift retribution against even a player of Weight's stature?
"It was Doug Weight. It wasn't like it was Tie Domi," said Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau, as old school as they come. "He was in a vulnerable position and he hit him. I think he could have let up in hitting him."
But legislating that type of hit is something Boudreau wouldn't like to see.
"I don't think anybody wants to see anybody getting hit to the head. But the game goes so fast, and where do you make the distinction where sometimes the shoulder runs into the neck?" he said. "If there was a way to stop the hitting to the head, it would be tremendous for our game. But as I think somebody else said: The players have got to police it better. And I agree. Some players don't have enough respect for the people in the game."
True, and some players don't have enough respect for aggressive players like Tootoo, who are in this League to physically punish opponents.
"If your head's down, I'm going to hit you. That's the way I play, and that's the way a lot of guys play," said Tootoo.
Scott Morrison had a good piece in the Toronto Sun today that offers a potential compromise:
Players who play a physical game with their head down are going to get hit and quite often will get hurt. And it won't necessarily be a concussion. There are many ways players in that position can get dinged.
One way the league could modify the rules, ever so slightly, would be to allow the accidental shoulder hits to the head only if the player has the puck on his stick. If a player has just shot or passed the puck, then make an accidental hit to the head a penalty. That would, in part, address the issue of players in a vulnerable position getting hit and hurt.
Otherwise, the solution is to adjust the equipment and keep your head up.
Until the next crushing open-ice check reopens this debate yet again.