Is the NHL getting it right on hits to the head?

It seems every year, the NHL has a new dilemma that the media latches on to, and creates so much attention around it to force the league into action. For the past few years, all the chatter has been about fighting, but this year, all the attention has been focused on dangerous hits to the head.

I’m sure you’ve already seen these clips, since just about every NHL broadcast has included some discussion on the matter, but here’s some examples of the hits that have caused all the commotion.

At the NHL GM meetings in Florida, the league’s general managers came to a consensus regarding a rule change that will, if implemented, ban blindside hits to the head, much like the hits on Savard and Booth that were actually clean hits despite their malicious appearance. According to league disciplinarian and NHL director of operations Colin Campbell, “Where we are going is taking a completely legal hit now, with the shoulder, and saying from a certain aspect in the future, next year, that’s going to be an illegal hit if delivered to the head. Part two of that, which is a huge statement in the game, we’re shifting some of the responsibility from the player getting hit to the player delivering the hit, which was never part of the game. You grew up you always had to have your head up, you’d get crap from your dad if you got hit when you were watching your pass. But now there’s some responsibility on the guy delivering the hit.”

When I first heard of the rule change, I have to admit, I was disappointed. I’m a fan of tough, physical hockey, and eliminating any and all hits to the head would, in my opinion, take a way a major part of the physicality that makes this game as great as it is. If any and all hits to the head were eliminated, Scott Stevens wouldn’t be remembered as one of the greatest hitters in the game, but probably as one of the most suspended. What Campbell said about changing responsibility is a huge part of that. Growing up playing in Canada, I got my first concussion when I was ten, coming around the net with my head down in a AAA tryout. You know what my old man had to say about it? “Keep your head up.” You know what the coach had to say about it? “Keep your head up.” It’s a rule of the game that every player knows. Removing all responsibility from the player who receives a hit is unacceptable. This is the NHL, not the IIHF or some babyback Euro league.

Looking closer at the GMs’ recommendation, however, my fears were put to rest, as the rule change will not make any contact to the head illegal, but only blindside contact to the head. Under the new rule, the hits on Booth and Savard would obviously be illegal. Personally, I think a rule change is unnecessary. As Don Cherry pointed out last night on Coach’s Corner, the NHL rulebook already has a policy in place that would make dealing with hits like the ones pictured above very simple. According to rule 21, “A match penalty shall be imposed on any player or goalkeeper who deliberately attempts to injure an opponent in any manner. A match penalty shall be imposed on a player or goalkeeper who deliberately injures an opponent in any manner.” It says it twice – any deliberate attempt to injure should result in a match penalty, which results in an automatic suspension for at least one game and often, a hearing to discuss further suspension. The hits by Cooke and Richards would easily fall under this category, no different than Marty McSorley’s slash to the head of Donald Brashear or Todd Bertuzzi’s cheap shot on Steve Moore.

While a rule change may not be necessary, the incredible amount of media attention given to this season’s high amount of hits to the head basically left the league without a choice in the matter.  The NHL has taken numerous steps to repair its image in the wake of the lockout, both in the eyes of the fans and the media.  Ignoring a hot button issue that involves the health of players would only serve to further damage the league’s reputation.  The new rule change is a solid move, as it protects both the integrity of the physical nature of North American hockey and the wellbeing of the athletes.  Fans of hockey won’t have to worry that their games will turn into sissy danglefests with no big hits. Based on my understanding of the new rule, even a hit like this one on RJ Umberger would still be legal, since it was a head on collision, and not a cheap shot from behind like Matt Cooke’s. The rule change should be in effect by next season, now let’s hope it’s enough to get the media attention back on things that really matter.

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