Puck Daddy - NHL

Now that the NHL GMs' decision to recommend a blindside hit ban has had about 24 hours to settle, the majority opinion seems to be appreciation for the effort but frustration with the vague consequences for those soon-to-be-illegal actions.

Heck, even Don Cherry wants something more explicit than the vague punishments recommended by the GMs. From the AP:

Speaking after a Paralympic luncheon in Vancouver on Wednesday, the Hockey Night in Canada personality and former Bruins coach feels the threat of leaving a team shorthanded for five minutes is the best way to change players' behavior.

"A major will [work]," Cherry said. "When you get a five-minute major, you're going to think. You can fine them all you want. So what, the guys peel off money. The major, that's one thing you don't want to get because you're going to be five minutes short.

"I know if I was a coach I would be really ticked. ... The two-minute minor, that's nothing."

Many of us have been wondering if the proposed rule can be tweaked by the competition committee before the NHL Board of Governors votes on it, and David Shoalts of the Globe & Mail writes that it can:

Offenders will be subject to either a minor or major penalty at the discretion of the referees. But in either case, the hit will be automatically reviewed by the league and a suspension could follow. What will be decided between now and when the proposal goes to the competition committee in June is whether offenders can also receive an automatic game misconduct.

If they can tinker with that aspect, perhaps they can add an automatic suspension provision as well.

There's been gallons of digital ink spilled on this head-shot issue in the last day, and we've collected some of the more controversial, insightful and revealing takes in this post. As you'll see, the debate isn't just about a shoulder to the head; it's about the speed of the game, the equipment, fighting and, in the end, what hockey should become for the sake of the players.

Colby Cosh, as Colby Cosh does, absolutely kills it on MacLeans regarding head shots and uncomfortable truths. Just like it's hard to logically connect someone against any contact with the head on a hit but for the winking continuance of fighting in the NHL, it's difficult to face the fact that we demand hockey to be a fast, kinetic sport that's going to result in devastating injuries. From Cosh, in a must-read:

If you watch early '80s hockey, what immediately strikes you, once you get past the sheer horribleness of the goaltending, is the relative slowness of the game. There's no one reason for this: plenty of things have changed just a little bit, from the quality of icemaking to skate technology to the way skaters are trained. And the change isn't that extreme, or else Chris Chelios(notes), who actually played early '80s hockey in the early '80s, would be unable to draw a paycheque in his weak-bladder years. Still, it's a factor with exponential weight.

No one wants to consider deliberately slowing down the game, but we should at least consider that its speed is part of the problem, and a part we can't ignore if we want to address collisions at the fundamental level of imparted energy. Otherwise, as the game continues to get faster, we'll constantly be playing catch-up with rule changes. The speed is there in the game for pure entertainment purposes, just as much as the bodychecking is. It is, without any possible question, part of the game's danger; more speed means more and worse injuries, all other things being equal. If you won't consider steps to slow things down, you are in exactly, EXACTLY the same ethical position as somebody who refuses to consider changes to bodychecking doctrine. Hope I didn't just put a bullet in the head of your high horse.

Justin Bourne of The Hockey News argues that a total ban on head shots would have changed the game:

I'm aware of the obvious; we want to avoid certain situations.  We want to avoid a guy battling for the puck against the boards getting just his head hit by an incoming defender's shoulder.  We want to avoid the sideswipe shoulder to the head, a la Mike Richards(notes) and Matt Cooke(notes). If you break it down, we want to avoid head hits that aren't "player is moving forwards - bam - player is moving backward." 

Just don't take away the raw beauty of an open-ice hit.

Earlier this year, Jonathan Toews(notes) got absolutely shoulder-to-melon destroyed on a hit by Willie Mitchell(notes), went to the bench and said "#&$%, I had my head down."  If you watch the replay, Toews - an honest, hard-working player who knows he made a mistake - doesn't look up-ice so much as once. Why shouldn't he get hit when the puck comes his way?

I want to protect our players.  But I want to protect our game, too.

Cory Lavalette of From The Rink argues that the instigator rule should remain in place even if some feel fighting is a determent for cheap shots:

But in my opinion, the answer isn't having a 240-pound goon given free reign to patrol the ice and respond to any iffy actions. First, you need to let the players know that borderline hits, while brutally exciting and craved - type David Booth(notes) or Mike Richards into YouTube and you'll see, despite each player having several highlight-reel efforts during their careers, which clips come to the top - are altering the careers of some of the game's brightest stars.

Second, the players need to answer the bell when the player they wronged calls them out. Booth did not receive an instigator when he dropped the gloves with Richards March 3 to close the door on the incident. Tuomo Ruutu(notes) faced the music when Darcy Tucker(notes) wanted retribution for a hit from behind by Ruutu on the Colorado winger that left Tucker concussed and the Carolina forward suspended. None of these players received an instigator because all four were willing combatants. It's not vigilante justice if everyone - even the league and the officials - agree that it's the best way to diffuse the situation between evenly matched foes.

Mike Dodd of Orilla Today knows a thing or two about head shots, considering his is the size of Montana. Anyhoo, he thinks it's all about the equipment:

The major culprit in the whole situation is not the players themselves, but the equipment they wear. In response to the fact the game of hockey has become more physical and much quicker, professional players are now wearing bulky shoulder pads with a rock-hard plastic exterior casing.

No human body part, most notably the head, stands a chance when it comes in contact with high-technology plastic.

The NHL brain trust that sits in the comfy executive offices in Toronto and New York is well aware of the problem and actually has new, softer hockey equipment fully tested and ready to be shipped out, as soon as the league approves its use.

So the big question that remains is what's up with all the stalling? No doubt Gary Bettman and his staff want to make sure all is rosy with the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) before the new equipment is unveiled.

Scott Radley of the Hamilton Spectator rightfully wonders if a total ban on headshots would ever work if a star player handed one out, and believes the solution's already there for the NHL:

The NHL's key problem is that its supplementary discipline has been so squishy over the past number of years that there's clearly no fear among the players that asinine behaviours will lead to truly dire consequences. Unless, of course, the player committing the act is a marginal figure in which case the book is thrown at him in a transparent-to-everyone attempt to look tough without actually being so.

If a player commits an act that causes an injury or was so dangerous it easily could have -- whether that's a hit to the head or a hit from behind into the boards or whatever -- he should find himself in street clothes for a long, long time.

Finally, we're going to need to use the Hubble to see how far Dan Gardner of the Ottawa Citizen has gone over the top in his ode to personal responsibility and acceptable risk, in which he brings football, narcotics and German Georgian lugers into the debate. Oh, and he'd rather his son take Ecstasy than suffer a head injury on the gridiron, and he snidely argues for the banishment of hockey.

(Ed. Note: The author contacted us moments after this post was published to let it be known that "I didn't advocate banning hockey, or bodychecking" except when he did, as a rheotical device. Again, read his column: It's a hyperbolic argument that ties this hockey decision to other life choices and government interference, and he makes several points with which we agree. It's a good piece but, as previously stated, way over the top.)

Good times:

So why not ban hockey? Playing would be a crime punishable by up to two years in jail and a fine of not less than $1,000. Organizing a game would be a much more serious offence. That would get you up to seven years in prison. Does the RCMP have Gary Bettman's address?

I know. That's a little extreme. It's unnecessary, after all. We could just make it a crime to play "contact" hockey.

Hockey without bodychecking would be legal. It would be like basketball on skates. Of course this wouldn't eliminate all injuries, but it would come close to ensuring that we never again see a player lying limp on the ice.

And yet no one is suggesting this. The most anyone is demanding is a tweaking of the rules that would allow hockey to continue to be fast, violent and risky. How odd.

OK then.

In sifting through a few hundred headlines and links this morning on this topic, we were stunned by how few there were from U.S. publications that went beyond simply reporting about the GMs' suggested rule change.

This probably speaks to the lack of columnists who are assigned to cover hockey, or understand the sport, which is something we've written about before. But it may also speak to this issue being a sports one in the States and a cultural one in Canada -- the subtle difference between changes to the NHL vs. changes to The Game Itself in the eyes of observers. Or, perhaps, in American culture the protection of the players isn't as paramount a concern.

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