March 08, 2010
Hits to the head in the NHL are apparently like snowflakes, in the sense that they're cold and involve something plummeting to the ice. Wait, no, that's not right: It's because no two are exactly alike, even when they appear to be identical.
I've spent the last 24 hours explaining to various warring factions why I believe Pittsburgh Penguins winger Matt Cooke's(notes) hit on Boston Bruins center Marc Savard(notes) (video) is different than Philadelphia Flyers center Mike Richards's(notes) hit on Florida Panthers forward David Booth(notes) (video).
Both happened around the same part of the ice, both resulted in a concussed star offensive player being taken off on a stretcher. Yet I'll staunchly defend the Richards hit as an attempt to separate player from puck before Booth made a quick pass, while the Cooke head shot came well after Savard fired the puck. I see the former as a hockey play, the latter as a cheap hit. I know this puts me in the minority.
But it's all subjective, isn't it? This isn't hooking or high-sticking. Hits to the head are a nebulous, debatable, contentious part of the game, as evidenced by the over 200 comments on the Savard/Cooke incident on Sunday. They're also a blight on the Game, a constant downer and a subject that marries two of the most uncomfortable realities for NHL fans: That our sport is inherently injurious and that our system of justice is inherently unjust.
The annual GM meetings begin in lovely Boca Raton on Monday, and hits to the head are the main course. We're closer than ever to legislation against head shots. But if we're going to untangle the confusion about what warrants a penalty or further discipline, then the focus shouldn't be on anatomy but rather on proximity.
In other words: Ban blindside hits to the head, in clear black-and-white language that the players all understand.
Reading the tea leaves, the blindside hit will be outlawed in the next year or so. Brian Burke of the Toronto Maple Leafs, advocate of truculence that he is, has endorsed the idea that blindside hits rather than all headshots should be targeted.
The Cooke hit would be illegal and penalized. So would the Richards hit. The debates about their legality would be over, even if the arguments about what sort of punishment they deserve from the NHL will continue until the sun explodes.
If it is, in fact, true that the NHL will not merely suspend Cooke, but draft a rule outlawing such hits, then the NHL is moving in the right direction.
It has long been the case that the definition of an illegal hit, including a hit to the head, depended on whether you were a member of the hitter's team or that of the hittee.
It may now be the case that the NHL has studied this issue long and hard enough to be able to view it more clinically, with the issue of player safety uppermost in the minds of those who make the rules.
Again, banning blindside hits is a more workable solution than banning all "shoulder to the head" checks in the NHL (as Darren Dreger writes could be in consideration), primarily because that type of contact can sometimes be incidental and because there are times the skater is as much as fault at the hitter (think Lindros, head down, ramming into Scott Stevens).
The real danger of "taking hitting out the game" is palpable when dealing with all hits to the head; not so when the focus is narrowed to blindside hits.
That said, this legislation isn't without pitfalls. It's still a subjective call for the referee as to whether a player was in a vulnerable position or if an opponent had to time to ease up on the hit. It's still going to be a miscarriage of justice on the League level (in most cases) whenever a suspension needs to be doled out. Defining the damages for a player caught giving a blindside hit -- penalty minutes, misconducts, suspensions, fines -- needs to be strict, clear and consistent, which are three things punishments are usually not in the NHL.
But, most importantly, we've all learned a lesson from another rules change that transformed the NHL into a bunch of back-turning martyrs looking for boarding calls.
Two of the biggest concerns with introducing any sort of ban on hits to the head are lessening the physical nature of hockey and having players put themselves at risk in trying to use the rule to their advantage.
Rutherford, who has long campaigned for a ban on headshots, said the latter side effect became a problem when the NHL brought in penalties for hits from behind. While the rulebook says no penalty will be assessed if a player "intentionally turns his body to create contact with his back," the prospect of having an opponent take a five-minute major plus a game misconduct was too much for some players to resist turning into an onrushing opponent.
"The players are so smart, that every time we establish a rule they figure out a way around it," said Rutherford, who thinks at least some players will try to make themselves appear vulnerable to a blind-side hit. "We need to protect vulnerable players but there's a fine line. In hits from behind, players started to turn their backs to protect the puck and draw a penalty. But they put themselves in danger."
That's a scary thought: a player angling the back of his head to a hit, absorbing a head shot in order to draw a five-minute major and a gamer. But that doesn't mean it won't be done.
NHL discipline czar Colin Campbell told the Toronto Star that "it all really comes down to the Richards-Booth hit. ... The question is, are we going to shift more responsibility to the hitter than the player being hit?"
True, but on a broader scale: Will banning the Richards hit work to change hockey culture among players? Will it quiet these unending debates among fans and pundits? And, most importantly, will it keep the Booths and Savards off the stretcher?