March 09, 2009
If the NHLPA's proposed rules changes for hits to the head are adopted, Scott Stevens couldn't play in today's NHL.
OK, Stevens could play; the Hall of Fame defenseman's game went well beyond his signature open-ice hits on opponents. But he wouldn't have been able to play the same type of hockey that helped put him in the Hall, because hits like this classic one on Slava Kozlov of the Detroit Red Wings -- voted the best check in NHL online video history by readers of Orland Kurtenblog - would be outlawed under the NHLPA's proposal:
There was nothing accidental or inadvertent about that Stevens hit -- he was a Wings-seeking missile, locked onto Kozlov with the intent of taking him out (of the play, maybe even the game). It's that type of bell-ringer that NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly wants to see penalized at the referee's discretion -- handing out a minor, major or match penalty to players that "intentionally or recklessly" target another players' head.
Kelly believes there is support for such a measure; the question is whether the NHL would be a better game for adopting it.
Again, it's a legal hit: Sutter clearly put himself in a prone position while attempting to skate through the neutral zone -- reaching with his stick to play the puck, ignoring anything steaming his way -- and Weight skated through him. It's a hockey play. And, should Kelly's proposal pass, it would now carry at least a two-minute penalty; but in Weight's case, much more.
The rule would be directed at players who deliver blind-side hits to other players, who are in a vulnerable position. If there is no injury on the hit, the referee could issue a two-minute minor penalty or, if there is an injury, a five-minute major. If there is a deliberate attempt to injure someone in the referee's opinion, he could give the player a match penalty which would subject him to further discipline from the league.
"Right now, you can blindside a guy, you can see a player coming through the centre of the neutral zone, looking away to take or receive a pass and you can drop your shoulder straight into his head and it's a perfectly legal and appropriate hit," Kelly said. "We don't think that is correct. We think that is a serious safety issue."
Unlike the Ontario Hockey League, which introduced a rule banning all hits to the head, the NHLPA proposal does not concern accidental or incidental contact.
For example, if a tall defenceman like Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins, who is 6-foot-9, is checking a smaller player, he often makes contact with the opponent's head because of their disparity in size. "That would not be a penalty," Kelly said. "It's a question of targeting the head of a player who is not in a position to defend himself. That is what we think needs to be addressed."
Based on the Chara exception, maybe Manute Bol can finally find some work in the NHL ...
Again, it's chilling to think that referees will be given yet another game-changing -- in some cases, season-altering if it's a match penalty that can be turned into a lengthy suspension -- decision in which they attempt to glean "intent" on a bang-bang play.
Not only because it's a difficult call to make -- one man's "incidental contact" is another man's cheap shot in the corner -- but because NHL referees are all too willing to not have to make the call; choosing to let the aftermath of a play make the decision for them.
This proposal already sounds like a rule with a regrettable checklist through which referees determine the severity of a call.
Like with high-sticking and the drawing of blood.
Like with hits from behind, and the appearance of a stretcher.
The result of the play does nothing to determine a player's "intent to injure." They're merely convenient evidentiary benchmarks a referee can use as cover, turning what is by definition a subjective decision into a standardized one.
But maybe there's a way to figure out intent. As Shoalts wrote, this NHLPA rule is a variation of the OHL's outright ban on hits to the head. We interviewed Ted Baker, vice president of the OHL, earlier this season about their rule and how referees determine "intent" on a hit to the head:
"The key part of the rule is based on the degree of impact. If there's not much of an impact to the head but there's still contact made to the head -- he goes into the corner, battling for the puck, and comes up and gets the guy in the head -- there's no harm, then you're looking at a two-minute minor, like for elbowing," Baker said.
"If a player's coming through the neutral zone, he lines him up and 'crunch,' he gets him in the head, then your degree of impact has increased and the penalty increases to a five," he said. "We're not pigeonholing. We're saying to the referees: What was the degree of impact to the head?"
That's a little different than what Kelly summarized above; but perhaps it will end up being the way referees figure out intent.
"Intent to injure" aside, the notion that legal, clean, hard open-ice checks that happen to involve an opponent's head will go the way of Crystal Pepsi is stomach-churning for a traditionalist.
A two-minute penalty for a previously legal check that involves the head is a green light for Generation Lindros: a League full of players that skate with their heads down, knowing they're untouchable because any contact with their noggin has been legislated out of the game.
We're not exactly keen on standing with Gary Bettman on many issues affecting the NHL, but the commissioner asked the right questions when faced a query about a "hits to the head" quasi-ban back in November:
"It's not a simple question," the commissioner replied. "If I take my elbow and I knock it into your head, with the intent of injuring you, that's a far different act than eliminating what would otherwise be a clean body check. When you say ‘Should it be a penalty?' The fact is, what if at the last second, you turn your back on me and I'm going to check you, what if at the last second you bend over and what wouldn't have been a hit to the head turns out to be a hit to the head?...
"If you say you can't have contact with the head, you are going to reduce the amount of checking in the game and you are going to change the way the game is played."
Yes, players are bigger and faster and skate with more velocity than ever before. The hits are harder, the injuries more perilous. But this rule change doesn't target just hooliganism -- it targets hockey plays. And while this draconian protectionism is good for the NHLPA's medical plan deductibles, is it good for the Game?