Thursday, March 10, 2011

What price glory? What will it cost for the NHL to take a stand on head shots?

It took eleven years after Bill Masterton died from injuries sustained on the ice for the NHL to mandate helmets as required equipment for players.

It took a fan, Brittanie Cecil, dying from an errant puck into the stands that led to the mandatory nets that now grace every hockey rink to prevent that from happening again.

Will it take the another death of a player for the NHL to take a firm stand on blows to the head?

European hockey and Olympic hockey rules are very clear: no hits to the head. And the games are no less exciting, fun or enjoyable for the lack of it.

So why is it so difficult for the NHL to simply rule that any hit to the head is illegal, and the more severe the hit/resulting injuries, the more severe the punishment?

The players in the NHL are bigger, stronger, and faster than ever before. Although hockey gear has continued to evolve, it remains a high-risk sport, and perhaps now more than ever, steps need to be taken to protect the players.

The one-year anniversary of the Matt Cooke (Penguins)/Dennis Savard (Bruins) hit passed a few days ago, and to go along with it, the NHL could also mark the two-month anniversary since its star player, Sidney Crosby, was last seen on game ice.  

Cooke took Savard out with this hit:

Savard suffered a Grade 2 concussion. The on-ice officials didn't penalize Cooke for the hit, nor did the league choose to suspend or fine him for it, despite widespread support that it was a dirty hit. Savard eventually recovered enough to return to play during the second round of the Bruins playoff run last spring. He then resumed play this season, only to get checked into the end boards on January 22nd and suffer another concussion. After some consideration, it was decided that Savard would sit out the rest of the season.

In the spring of 2010, defenseman Kim Johnsson came to the Blackhawks in a late-season trade that exchanged him and a prospect named Nick Leddy from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Cam Barker. He only played eight games in Chicago before suffering a concussion on March 13th which ended his season, and as far as anybody still knows, his career.

Late last season, following a spate of questionable hits but particularly the Cooke/Savard hit, the NHL created Rule 48, which levies a 5-minute major penalty and and automatic game misconduct for illegal checks to the head. The rule is defined as "a lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact is not permitted."

League superstar Sidney Crosby, who is teammates with Matt Cooke, briefly touched on a need for rulings against blindside hits, stating, "At some point there's got to be a clear indication from the league because we've seen this so many times now. You don't like to see anyone, their own teammate or an opposing player, lay on the ice like that. That was scary."

The problem has been that there have been plenty of hits this season that included hits to the head, or hits which directly eneded with a player's head colliding with boards or glass, and resulting in a concussion - there were 33 and counting as of December 1st; how many more in the three months since? But the interpretation of Rule 48 has been left to the refs on the ice, and some of the hits in question have been borderline, still leaving plenty of room for players to continue to injure one another.

Crosby himself took a hit to the head from David Steckel in the Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals on January 1st, then another hit from Victor Hedman in the January 5th game against Tampa Bay. Debate continues to wage over which game he sustained his concussion in, or whether it was a culmination of both hits.

The irony here is that if perhaps Crosby had used his position in the NHL spotlight to speak up much more strongly after his own teammate had ended another player's season, and led a demand for players health to be more strongly protected, Rule 48 might have not only been against "illegal checks to the head", but instead all head shots - thus putting the NHL on the same level as Olympic and European rules to protect their players. Maybe it could have saved Crosby from taking not just one but two hits to the head, which so far seem to have removed him from the rest of the 2010-11 season, and potentially longer than that.

The thing is that in pro sports, no player is ever going to really strongly speak out against their own teammates - at least, not for anything short of something that sends a player to jail. Crosby (nor any player) would not stand up and say, "Boy, Cooke really laid a dirty one on Savard, and I hope the team and the league both throw the book at him on that one." 

It's part of the hockey "code". You just don't do it. Hockey players police themselves on the ice as much as the refs allow, and sometimes that means somebody gets hurt.

On February 11th, after a bench-clearing, Slapshot-resembling NYI-vs-PIT game, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux stated, “The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed. ... We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action."

That same night, Blackhawk Fernando Pisani was checked into the boards by Dallas Star Mark Fistric, his head barely missing the corner of the glass and instead bouncing off the top of the boards in front of the home box . While Fistric was given interference and roughing penalties, Pisani had a concussion and missed three weeks' worth of games.

The Pisani/Fistric hit: 

Apparently, fines, suspensions, tough words, and slaps on the wrist aren't getting it done as a message to the players. This week, Boston Bruin Zdeno Chara slammed Montreal Canadien Max Pacioretty into the glass, resulting in a grade 3 concussion and a broken neck.

Video of the Chara hit:

The call on the ice to Chara was a major penalty and a game misconduct; the hit went to review, and no further punishment was given to Chara, leading to ongoing fiery debates across the league and fan base.

In last night's Lightning-Blackhawks matchup, Tampa Bay defenseman Pavel Kubina delivered an elbow to the head of Chicago's Dave Bolland on open ice at the beginning of the first period. Bolland suffered a concussion and is expected to miss a few games. No penalty was called on the ice, but after a review today, Kubina will have a three game suspension, which includes forfeiting over $60,000 in salary, for the hit.

The NHL Wheel of Justice continues to spin, spitting out uneven penalties for perpetrators, whether it is penalties on the ice or suspensions off of it. How much has to do with the star power of the players involved? Why does the league hesitate to levy strong enough punishment against its biggest names or when the top-liners are injured, but punishment for the third- and fourth-liners is resolved quickly?

This year, the league will spend more than $1.625 billion on player salaries. At what point, at what cost, will the NHL decide that protecting its players - its investments - is worth a simple rule that says "All shots to the head are illegal"?

In a landmark move, Air Canada - one of the NHL's largest sponsors - has threatened to withdraw its sponsorship if the league doesn't take "immediate" and "serious" action on headshots, the Toronto Sun reports. Money talks, and in a league that lives and breathes every day for every ticket sold, every jersey bought, in order to determine salaries, this is a very bold move indeed. Whether or not Air Canada will carry through is another story, but it will certainly weigh very heavily on the minds of the NHL GMs who meet next week in Florida to discuss headshots. That Air Canada did so is very bold indeed; if any other major sponsors stepped forward, it would add further weight to the discussions.

When will the players themselves stand up and demand to be better protected? Is the glory and joy of playing in the NHL worth the inherent risk of losing your health and potentially, life?

Recently, Boston Bruin member Andrew Ference broke the code when he was asked about teammate Dan Paille's destruction of Dallas Star Raymond Sawada, stating, "It's a bad hit, right? That's what they're trying to get rid of. You can't be hypocritical about it when it happens to you, then say it's fine when your teammate does it. It's a hit they're trying to get rid of."

Concussions are no joke. They can end seasons, careers, lives. It's boggling that something that seems like a simple way to decrease medical cost, game-hours-lost, and less risk to not just star but all players would be for automatic penalties for all head shots, "intentional" or not.

European and Olympic hockey have shown us that top-end hockey can be free of hits to the head and still remain an exciting product. Rule 48 needs to be upgraded to include all hits to the head, and punishment needs to be dolled out on equal footing to all players, on an increasing scale for repeat offenders.


  1. This post got me thinking, MLB has no cap, players make 20 mill+ & are handled as if they are made of glass. The injuries like a concussion usually are indirect and accidental. Ex: Justin Morneau's concussion that has left him to not play for over 100 days, because his head met the knee of a baseman while sliding into 2nd base. I'm not saying that the NHL doesn't value it's players but MLB has billions of dollars on the line for so many players, franchise players who bring in so much revenue, that if the injury situation in the NHL occurred in baseball, there would be hearings, disciplinarian actions, fines, etc to prevent it from ever happening again.

  2. In my opinion, there is a violence fetish gene buried somewhere within the human genome. In many people, it never comes to the surface, but when it does, it leads some people to revel in the experience of watching violence. You can date it as far back as the blood sports of ancient tribes, to the carnage of gladiator battles, and right up to modern sports. These days, it expresses itself most overtly (and legally) in sports such as boxing and mixed martial arts, but it also extends to such "On the Down-Low" events as dog fighting and cock fighting. I think this same tendency also expresses itself in the enjoyment some hockey fans have for watching violence on the ice. I think it is a taste that becomes so culturally entrenched that it becomes bound up the individual's moral and value judgments. It occurred to me that if Pacioretty had actually been killed by that hit the other night, some of those people would probably have reacted by saying, "This is precisely when we should NOT be enacting any new rules - in the passion of the moment," - and they would congratulate themselves for being reasonable, deep-thinking people - all in the service of their fetish for violence. To be clear, I am NOT alleging that this theory accounts for all people who support violence in hockey, but I think it is an underpinning that helps to perpetuate it. But I also think things can - and do - change. As you pointed out, we see the difference in European hockey. We've also seen pro football evolve a great deal in the past century in terms of its attitude towards violence. So hockey certainly can change - preferably by popular will over actual legal compulsion - but only time will tell.

  3. i'd never heard about the pisani hit until i read this post. not sure how it figures in the whole headshot discussion as fistric wasn't head hunting, he just planted his feet and took the body. What else could Fistric have done in that situation? With Chara there was the possibility to ease up and not push pacioretty's body over the boards, but in order for Fistric to avoid making that hit he would have had to jump out of pisani's way.
    If someone runs into you head first it's really hard to soften the blow. I love Pisani as I'm an Oiler's fan, but one has to be objective about these things and avoid lumping all injuries together regardless of the context.

  4. @Ross - you're making it sound like Fistric accidentally hit Pisani - which is totally not the case.

    Watch the video again. It was not Fistric avoiding trying to be hit by Pisani; it was Fistric intentionally going to check (0:31) - he backs up, leans into it, and checks Pisani hard, right where the partition/glass is. You can see his intent very clearly starting at 0:49 -- you can see him intentionally skating from mid-ice to intercept Pisani at the boards. This is not an accidental hit; but because of the nature/design of the hit, it was deemed a legal check, apparently.

    It wasn't a head shot, but Fistric knew what kind of hit he was delivering and where he was in relation to the boards. Pisani's head could've hit the same part of the glass Pacioretty did, but due to the power of the hit, he missed that and instead ended up hitting the partition between the box and the ice.

  5. I don't think Cooke is a bad guy, but he definitely needs to get the message. After last season and then this hit on Sunday on Callahan...

    I'm glad the league took a stand and gave him a suspension that sends a message. Despite the code it was nice to see the Penguins organization come out and say it was an unacceptable hit and support the NHL's punishment. To even take it a step further and say they'd have given him the same had the NHL not is a pretty high class comment. No one can know for sure if they actually would, but I've seen nothing to discredit the quality of the Pens organization. I hope Cooke really gets the message, I'd hate to have to see what the Pens and the NHL would have to do if he had another dirty hit. (I of course would support it, but I'd like to keep my opinion of Cooke as untarnished as possible.)

    I've heard many say it, the changes made during the lockout to make the game higher scoring and flow with less interruptions, to improve the game's popularity, have increased the risks to players. Personally I have never liked the idea of changing the game to win a popularity contest, the best part of hockey is its purity...being the same game throughout the years. I like to go to a game and be surrounded by fans who know and respect the game...not fans who have no idea what's going on, cheer for the hometown team when they're winning and abandon support as soon as things take a turn. I can't say if it's like that everywhere, but in the SF, CA area sports fans are, in general, unloyal and uncommitted. (Not all, I don't mean to offend). Not all changes in 04 were bad and going back would probably not solve the player safety issue. But maybe, just maybe the NHL's effort to make the game more widespread and popular, increasing the scoring and speed of the game, needs to be looked at again. Perhaps it needs to be slowed down, not as much as before, but some. It would allow the officials to police hits more accurately and effectively.

    In some of the recent games I've watched I've seen some dirty hits go uncalled. If the NHL really wants to get rid of head shots, the policing of them needs to be more rigid. I guess there may be a learning curve with players (though I don't think there really should be) but maybe with the increased discussion and enforcement in a couple years it won't have to be such a prominent discussion. I'm sure the NHL would like some more positive PR, making an effort to increase the safety of your players is great...but the number of reports we hear about almost daily of injuries and nasty hits can't be the type of popularity the NHL is seeking.

  6. Not Callahan...I think the St. Patrick's day commercial messed with my Irish naming. The hit was on McDonagh, oops.


Thanks for your viewpoint!

Please note that anonymous comments are moderated in order to prevent spam.