Mike Chen does a good job of looking at the problem of hits to the head.
To some degree, I agree with him: hits to the head need to be penalized. But the devil is in the details…
I donâ€™t think anyone wants to see what happened to Brandon Sutter, and Iâ€™m constantly surprised at the fact that every time this happens, the NHLPA does nothingâ€”youâ€™d think the safety of their players would truly be their primary concern.
Under Kelly, the PA’s attitude has been changing; note, for instance, that Kelly is now in favor of mandating visors with a grandfather law for veterans. Of course, increasingly, this is a moot point. Stop and count the number of current Sharks that do NOT wear visors. I was thinking about that the other night, and it’s a surprisingly small number.
I think the fact that the league and PA aren’t moving faster on this is simple: it’s a difficult issue that is tightly wound to the core of the game. How do you take it out of the game without screwing up the game in other ways?
Iâ€™ve often been in favor of penalizing hits to the headâ€”itâ€™s not exactly a new concept in hockey, after all, and the stuff that can happen later in life due to concussions is downright frightening. However, the execution of such a rule in the NHL is the subject of endless debate.
Thereâ€™s a valid argument about the position Sutter was in when Doug Weight ran him over. With that in mind, hereâ€™s an attempt at a compromise rule:
-Any shoulder impact on a playerâ€™s head is a two-minute penalty
-Any elbow impact on a playerâ€™s head is a four-minute penalty (two minutes for elbowing, two minutes for hit to the head)
-Similar to the â€œWas it a distinct kicking motion?â€ rule, a judgment-call exception can be made by the referee when a player is in such a position that his head is lower than the top of his shoulders. Basically, donâ€™t hunch over with your head downâ€”got it?
Itâ€™s not exactly black-and-white but itâ€™s pretty darn close. It also requires a little bit of split-second judgment by the refs, which is never an easy thing. However, if this is executed properly, I think itâ€™s a reasonable way to try and integrate a preventative into the game while not catering to stupidity. In other words, if youâ€™re hunched over admiring your nifty stickhandling work, youâ€™re still fair game.
The precedent here is the high stick. It’s a “no tolerance no excuse” rule, and players have (mostly) adapted.
The sticking point for me is the boarding or hitting from behind penalty. Players have figured out they can draw penalties by turning away from a hit — once a player commits to the check, they can find themselves with no options. It’s really a form of a dive, if you ask me, but it’s that same kind of split-second-judgement we’d now be asking referees to make.
And it’s got some of the same implications. A player that misjudges the hit into the boards can find himself seriously injured or spitting teeth onto the ice (hmm. did I just imply that’s not a serious injury? guess so; in hockey). Players are willing to put themselves at risk to draw the penalty here — to me, that says some will do the same with hits to the head, just to get the penalty. And that’s bad on a number of levels.
On balance, though, I like this approach. I’m a lot LESS worried about shoulder hits; we need to encourage that in the game, it’s the elbows, forearms and fists I want to see dropped from the game.
So how about this? Basically, extend high sticking to the elbow. Any touch to the body above the shoulder from the elbow to the blade of the stick is at least 2 minutes. 2 for incidental contact, four for significant contact, five for intent to injure.
I’d leave the shoulder out of it for now. Clamp down on elbows and forearms, and see how it goes. If shoulder hits continue to be problems, we can look at revising the rules. To me, though, I worry about heading too close to “hockey is a physical game, as long as nobody gets hurt”. you can’t do both; injuries WILL occur, and we have to be willing to accept that. Trying to stop every possible injury removes the physical aspect from the game. What we need to do is find that balancing point that allows for the great phyiscal play while discouraging the play that leads to dangerous situations and avoidable injuries. And I’d rather take two smaller steps and evaluate the change than one big step and realize we’ve gone too far, because it’s hard to take it back out of the rules once it’s there.