October 26, 2008
This hit by New York Islanders center Doug Weight on Carolina Hurricanes rookie Brandon Sutter was absolutely brutal. It was deemed to be legal. Now, the question is whether this hit to the head is immoral and should be outlawed by the NHL.
Weight's hit knocked Sutter unconscious, and the Hurricanes forward was still hospitalized on Sunday.
Jim Rutherford, Carolina's general manager, spoke out about the hit in an interview with TSN's Bob McKenzie today:
"The league should at least stop saying it's concerned with hits to the head, because it's not," Rutherford told TSN.ca. "I've had four players - Erik Cole, Trevor Letowski, Matt Cullen and now Brandon Sutter - get badly injured on hits to the head and only one of the guys who hit them was suspended. So don't tell me the league is concerned about hits to the head because it's not.
"I realize there are only two ways you can go on this. Either you have a penalty for head-checking, like they do in the Ontario Hockey League, or you don't and we don't in the NHL and I understand that and that's fine, I guess, but don't tell anyone you care about protecting the players' heads because it's not happening."
Rutherford isn't the only Hurricanes' loyalist raising hell; the question is whether they should be, and whether this hit will one day be outlawed by the NHL.
This is how Coach Peter Laviolette saw it, via Lord Stanley's Blog:
"That hit has to be removed from the game," Laviolette said. "Guys are really getting hurt.
"By the letter of the law, (Weight's) arm didn't come up. But they're trying to take away blows to the head and (Sutter) was in a vulnerable position and was knocked out."
The outrage from the Hurricanes comes from a very personal place. As Rutherford stated, the team has lost its share of players through similar hits. That Colton Orr/Cullen hit remains particularly vicious when viewed again.
It's understandable that Rutherford, Laviolette and fans like Bubba from Canes Country would be livid:
According to the rules it was a legal hit. But was it a "clean" hit? Was it really necessary? Weight made no attempt at all to play the puck, he lowered his shoulder and went right after his young, inexperienced target.
Many fans will have no problem with that play calling it, "a part of hockey". Sutter will certainly learn his lesson. He'll learn that he should never try that hard to make a play again, so that he won't put himself in a similar situation. Better to hold back and play it safe, then to try to make a hustle play and be vulnerable.
David Lee of Red and Black Hockey doesn't believe Weight intended to injure Sutter, and that "it was unfortunate that it played out the way it did." But he does think this is another example of a hit that should be made illegal:
Now the league will review the incident, and if they are serious about cracking down on head-high hits, Weight will serve a short suspension. What has to happen, and what I've been yelling about for years now is that the league needs to call penalties for those hits. Regardless of intent. They do it in almost every other hockey league at every level. They do it in the NFL. It's not about turning the game into a no-contact sport. It's about player safety.
There are two issues at play here. The first is that no two brutal open-ice hits are alike. In the case of this Weight check, Sutter has 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.
So if you wanted some sort of blanket punishment for hits to the head ... how exactly do you police this one? Weight's hit was legal. Sutter put himself in a position to be injured. Do you outlaw open-ice hits? Or perhaps open-ice hits on rookies?
But the real issue here is the constant harangue that the NHL has to "do something" about injurious hits. As Bubba from Canes Country wrote:
While the NFL has figured out that it doesn't do their league any good to have their stars carted off the field with concussions, the NHL doesn't care. Helmet to helmet hits are illegal in football. Taking another player's head off is a "good play" in the NHL.
Maybe it's the Scott Stevens fan in me, but at some point you have to draw the distinction between protection of players and what are, intrinsically, hockey plays.
For example, I don't believe you need two players skating at full speed after an iced puck, with one guy giving the other guy a shove into the boards and shattering his leg. Breaking up an icing through physical jockeying is fun, but it's not necessarily "a hockey play" and it's not worth that kind of danger. Rules that prohibit those plays, and no-touch icing in other leagues, are important.
Rules and suspensions that police hits to the head are important, too. The evidence has been massive for a decade that concussions and head ailments are prevalent in the NHL. The repercussions for an illegal hit to the noggin should be swift and harsh.
But the issue at hand is what should be considered an illegal hit. McKenzie writes about a "head-checking rule" and would define it as a penalty "for any contact to the head, accidental or otherwise."
If the argument is that Weight's check on Sutter should be outlawed, count this hockey fan out. It's a legal hit, there wasn't intent to injure, it's a hit on the puck-carrier and it was Sutter's unfortunate body contortion that resulted in his injury.
Plus, I fear if there's ever "head-checking" legislation passed, it's going to have to come with some consideration for intent. Which means we could end up with "head-checking" looking very much like "high-sticking": Just like the severity of penalties are determined by drawn blood, they'll be determined by how long a player remains flat on his back. We'll have majors that should be minors, minors that should be majors. It'll put yet another arbitrary decision in the hands of officials. This is never a good thing.
It's a worthy debate, but it always comes back to this thesis: Shots to the head are never cut and dry.
Eric Lindros retired in 2007. He had more concussions than all-star appearances in his career. But how many of those hits deserved a penalty, and how many resulted from the way Lindros chose to play the game?