The case against zero tolerance of head shots

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

NEWARK, N.J. -- Shane Doan(notes) is no Neanderthal. The captain of the Phoenix Coyotes can hit and fight, but also skate and score. He can appreciate the seriousness of concussions, but also make an eloquent argument against zero tolerance of hits to the head – or at least point out the impracticalities of the idea. These things are not mutually exclusive.

For Doan, it comes down to this: Hockey is a dangerous game. Unless we accept some level of risk, it will lose an essential element.

"If you want to be safe, then don't play," Doan said Friday during the NHL's player media tour.

"Realistically, if you don't want to get hit and you don't want to get hurt, then don't play. If you go out on the ice, you're going to get hit. If you want to play shinny, then go play shinny. It's not the same.

"And that's not trying to be cavalier or trying to be light about the subject, because nobody wants anybody to get hurt. But the game isn't supposed to be safe. It's supposed to be an intense, emotional game."

Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby(notes) drew attention Wednesday when he called for zero tolerance of hits to the head. The NHL has broadened the definition of an illegal check to the head for the upcoming season, outlawing hits in which the head is "targeted and the principle point of contact," while asking officials to consider whether the player put himself in a "vulnerable position." Officials can assess a two-minute minor or a match penalty. But Crosby said the league could go further.

"As players, we're professionals," Crosby said. "The odd time, maybe there's accidental contact, but for the most part, we can control what goes on out there. For sure, it's a fast game, but we've got to be responsible, too. A guy's got to be responsible with his stick. Why shouldn't he be responsible with the rest of his body when he's going to hit someone? Whether it's accidental or not accidental, you've got to be responsible out there."

When Sid speaks, we listen. And we should. Crosby is the face of the league. He generally has avoided controversy, and here he was giving his opinion in a news conference updating his condition from a concussion that has cost him eight months and counting.

Several players have supported Crosby, including the Tampa Bay Lightning's Martin St. Louis(notes) and the New York Rangers' Brad Richards(notes). Doan went out of his way to show respect for Crosby, but he disagreed.

Crosby hasn't played since taking two hits in quick succession. First, on Jan. 1 in the Winter Classic, he curled into an opponent with his head turned as his opponent was skating up ice. He is listed at 5-foot-11. His opponent, David Steckel, then of the Washington Capitals, is 6-5. It was ruled incidental contact. Crosby played the rest of the game, then played Jan. 5 and took a hit from behind from the Lightning's Victor Hedman(notes) near the end boards. League officials did not consider the hit dirty.

"Obviously Sidney Crosby is vital for our league," Doan said. "We need him in our league, and it's awful that he hasn't been. I'm a huge fan of him. I want to watch him play. My son likes to watch him play. He's incredible. I don't know which one of those hits would be considered zero tolerance, and yet he got a concussion, and that's where you're kind of like, 'How do you draw the line?' "

Doan knows firsthand how difficult it can be to find that line. Early last season, he threw a hit that drew a suspension and took a hit that drew a suspension, and he questioned both.

On Oct. 17, Doan hit the Anaheim Ducks' Dan Sexton(notes). He was shocked to receive a three-game suspension. It was the first suspension of his long career and one of the first suspensions under Rule 48, which then banned "a lateral or blind-side hit" in which "the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact." Doan approached from Sexton's left, cut in front of him and led with his left shoulder. He said he actually avoided what could have been a bigger hit.

"At times, there's gray areas," Doan said. "With my suspension, I was a little confused."

On Oct. 31, Doan took a hit from the Ducks' James Wisniewski(notes). The way Doan describes it, he tried to pull the puck by Wisniewski on the rush and was about to beat him. Wisniewski stuck up his right arm instinctively and caught him on the jaw. (Doan struggled to get to his feet but stayed in the game. He would have had to be examined more thoroughly for a concussion after stricter return-to-play protocol was introduced later in the season.)

"He gets suspended two games for that, and so it's trying to teach us, 'You can't do that,' " Doan said. "But at the same time, it's hard not to just react, because we don't want to get scored on. You don't want to get beat."

So Doan didn't blame Wisniewski?

"No, I didn't blame him," Doan said. "We ended up fighting, and we dealt with it."

Doan laughed.

"It's one of those things that I'm mad, but it's not like he was targeting or deliberately going after my head," Doan continued. "He hit me in the head, and he knew, too. 'Yeah, OK.' People are like, 'You can't be targeting the head.' He wasn't targeting my head. He hit my head."

That is an important, sometimes delicate distinction. It will be interesting to see how the rewritten Rule 48 is enforced, now that the head must be targeted and the principle point of contact to break it. (What if the head was the principle point of contact but not targeted, and vice versa?) Doan is pleased that Brendan Shanahan(notes), the NHL's new disciplinarian, plans to use video to explain each suspension to help everyone understand where the line is.

What is a head shot? If it is a player targeting the head, especially if it is a player intending to hurt his opponent, then Doan is all for zero tolerance. And we already have it. But if there is an accident, especially if there is incidental contact, then Doan is against zero tolerance. I would at least allow for incidental contact. Say two players are racing for the puck. If you absolutely cannot make contact with the head, what do you do?

"I don't know how you stop that," Doan said. "Stopping is really going to either injure you or injure him even more sometimes. … If you're hesitant, that's when you really get hurt. So it's hard to say zero tolerance."

This is not to say we shouldn't care about concussions. We absolutely should. We know too much about their horrors not to. Maybe the NHL could put even more teeth into Rule 48. Maybe the penalties have to be stiff enough to force coaches to back off. Yes, coaches. Doan said they are the reason there are more hits than ever before.

"I full on want to hit defensemen hard," Doan said. "I do. We're told to. 'Finish your check!' "

Doan rammed a fist into a palm.

" 'Finish your check!' "

Fist. Palm.

" 'Finish your check!' " Doan continued. "Video is what's caused it. What's caused the whole thing of hitting is because coaches have video now and they watch it. 'Why didn't you finish your check? Finish your check!' "

But if we draw the line to the point of zero tolerance, what then? Instead of finishing too many checks, players might be finishing too few. If they know they can't hit the head, will they risk hitting anything at all? Will hockey be hockey anymore?

"Unless you go to basketball where you can only use your hands and you can't touch … even then, we're moving so fast that you're still going to have collisions," Doan said. "So they're never ever going to eliminate it."

Doan defended hockey as unique for allowing a place for fighting, allowing physicality, encouraging emotion. He said hockey players are a "really good group of men," with a few exceptions.

"Nobody wants to injure anyone, and nobody wants to hurt anyone," Doan said. "But at the same time, we want to win, and the competitiveness of our sport … I hope they don't take that away. I understand that that speed and the finesse of the game is what people like to see as well. I love that as much as anybody. But the compete and the intensity and the emotion of the game is really … I mean, you go to a game and that's … People love that. I don't care what anyone says."