Time for the NHL to Get Head in the Game

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“My initial thought was he’s (teammate Mike Modano) dead. My number one concern is that when a player goes into the boards like that is that he is seriously hurt. I think it’s just a matter of time before somebody is seriously hurt or is killed on a play like that. It was an absolutely ridiculous play and disgustingly cheap. The hit was something far worse than cowardly. As far as I’m concerned, he (Ruslan Salei) should be out of the league. It’s time for the powers that be to step up and make a lesson of this guy.” —Brett Hull

Imagine you are a parent. You work very hard to support your family, and do whatever it takes to ensure their happiness. You have a 10-year-old son, and he plays youth hockey. Your job prevents you from seeing him often during the week, but you make sure to be at every game to watch him play.

You are in the stands, cheering him on, when suddenly, a bigger, stronger 10-year-old boy on the opposite team charges at your son, hitting him directly in the head. You can do nothing but watch, as your son lays on the ice, motionless.

While this story was portrayed as hypothetical, believing so is a serious misjudgment.

According to a study from June 2006, performed by Dr. Steve Carney, a professor of sport management at Drexel University in Philadelphia, about 41 percent of American youth play sports, and an estimated 3.8 million concussions occur each year in youth sports.

The child in this “theoretical” situation could be anyone within that percentage. It could be your child.

The issue of head-related injuries is not limited to youth sports. On the professional level, specifically in the National Hockey League, the rate of concussions has increased dramatically in the last five years.

In fact, the main reason that youth hockey has experienced such vicious hits is because of the trickle-down effect of similar plays in the NHL.

The National Hockey League is at fault, failing to set the example by cracking down on concussions.

In order to severely reduce the number of concussions in hockey, legislation must be passed, ensuring the safety of youth hockey players.

In addition, the National Hockey League must modify its current rules of play, as well as its disciplinary measures, in order to create a safer game. By slowing down the pace of the game, and raising awareness of the severity of concussions, the number of these injuries will be severely reduced.

But where did this all begin?

Let us explore the origins of the issue:

Following a labor dispute that led to the cancellation of the 2004-2005 season, the National Hockey League sought to make the game more exciting in order to re-ignite and expand its fan base. Several modifications were made to the rules, and even the ice surface, in order to promote more speed, flow, and offensive production.

These changes were made with good intentions, and have had the desired effects. The game is more entertaining to watch, and there is more offensive flow than ever before.

However, the NHL failed to consider the severe consequences of such changes. Increasing the pace of the action has lead to more collisions, less on-ice awareness, and overall, a significantly lower level of player safety.

For example, one specific rule-change, the “trapezoid” rule, restricted the goaltender from handling the puck in any area behind the net outside of a small trapezoid in the center of that space. Only a positional player (any player besides the goaltender) is permitted to play the puck in those areas, allowing for more offensive flow and less goaltender intervention.

The issue with this rule-change is that allowing only players to play the puck in such areas has led to an increase in collisions, since there are more races to pucks in the corners.

In light of the increasing number of concussions in hockey, small steps have already been taken towards ensuring a safer game. The Ontario Hockey League recently banned all hits to the head, and the International Ice Hockey Federation, the governing body that dictates the rules for Olympic play, has had a ban on such hits since it was established. (Wayne Scanlan, Ottawa Citizen.)

Last year, the NHL implemented a new rule which prohibits “a lateral, back-pressure or blind-side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact.”

During the recent GM meetings, the National Hockey League embraced the issue, with commissioner Gary Bettman rolling out his new five-point plan to combat concussions.

I would argue that while these steps are groundbreaking, they still do not reduce the rate of occurrence. They do not address the primary issue—the pace of the game.

The National Hockey League must lead by example and embrace reform in order to reduce the number of concussions. The following rule-changes need to be implemented:

First, the trapezoid rule must be discarded. By disposing of this rule, the goaltender will handle the puck in the corners far more often, as opposed to the players. Since players won’t be rushing for every loose puck, there will be fewer collisions.

Second, the League should adopt a “no-touch” icing rule. Meaning, if a player clears the puck from one offensive zone to the other, the play is ruled dead as soon as the puck crosses the line behind the net.

This will reduce the number of collisions, because players will not be rushing for possession of the puck in icing situations. The International Ice Hockey Federation has implemented such a rule, and it has made Olympic play safer as a result.

Third, the NHL needs to be more consistent with its disciplinary actions. We’ve seen some players suspended for hits to the head, while others, such as Zdeno Chara, have gotten away unscathed.

The NHL needs to raise its standards of professional integrity. A player who delivers this type of hit must be held accountable for his actions. Hits to the head should not merely be subject to review and potential disciplinary action. Rather, a player who delivers this type of hit should receive an automatic 30-game suspension.

If there were such a universal rule, with such severe consequences, players would be more cautious about their aggression in those situations.

Consider the following statement from NHL Executive Vice President Colin Campbell:

…We have to allow that (physicality) to make it a good, hard, tough game. Players have to understand about mutual respect. They should be out to win, but not at any cost. You don’t have to injure a player.” (The Hockey News, October 22, 1999.)

The game needs a physical aspect; it’s just a matter of whether or not that aggression can be controlled.

 

An inherent flaw in the NHL rulebook is that, generally, only hits which are deemed to have targeted the head are reviewed. Unfortunately, there are other types of hits that can result in head injuries, yet they are virtually ignored.

Just recently, the league had two glorious opportunities to show the hockey world how serious they actually are about this issue.

A short while ago, Zdeno Chara impacted Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty near a stanchion between the boards and the glass. Paciorettty’s face slammed into the stanchion,knocking him out. Chara, of course, escaped any form of discipline, as Colin Campbell, Gary Bettman and the NHL did not see anything wrong with Chara’s actions.

Give the NHL credit for at least scheduling a hearing to review the Chara/Pacioretty incident.

Apparently, what occurred during an Islander/Ranger game last week at Nassau Coliseum was not even worthy of a hearing.

In that contest, Ranger forward Marian Gaborik decided, while his own team was on the power play (!), to clock Frans Nielsen of the Islanders, sending him head-first against the boards. Not a peep was heard out of Bettman and Co.

So, how serious is the league about this issue? Obviously, not the NHL is not as concerned as we might have previously thought.

 

There was once a time when the game of hockey was a moral, sincere sport. Recent history has shown that is no longer the case.

We need to save our game, and we need to ensure the safety of those who play it, because if we don’t, it really is only “ a matter of time before somebody is seriously hurt or is killed.”

I sincerely believe that if we are willing to embrace change, we will severely reduce the number of concussions and head-related injuries, and will make the game of hockey much safer.

 

Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter: @dfriedman_isles

 

 

 

Daniel Friedman
I'm a columnist for the New York Islanders on The Hockey Writers. I hail from West Hempstead, NY, I'm a Senior at Queens College and work at NBC Sports Network. Follow me on Twitter @DFriedmanNHL

6 Comments

  1. Brian Romanowski says:

    I think there’s bee a lot of attention to the concussion issue this year because Sidney Crosby has been out for so long with one. There are concussions every year, but it really seems to be being highlighted this season.

    All in all I agree with James that harsher penalties and fines would help prevent illegal head shots, but it’ll take some time. After a few players are suspended for 15-20 plus games on a consistent basis, then we might see skaters holding up on hits and taking that split second to readjust themselves for a legal hit. But right now the suspensions seem to be given out at random with players missing only small amounts of games, so players seem to just keep rolling the dice and hoping no one’s looking.

  2. A culture shock as in stiffer penalties. If players find themselves out for weeks at a time for committing acts they would have once followed through on without a second thought, that might provide enough incentive not to perform any borderline hits in the first place.

    If I were a player now (now is general terms, not necessarily as approaching the playoffs), a probable two-game suspension wouldn’t be enough incentive to keep me from running a player who had earlier run my teammate, who I had a standing feud with, etc.

    The standard two game punishments don’t seem to be enough to keep players from making these kinds of hits. If they know they’ll be out for a considerable time, they might reconsider such a hit in light of losing all that time (and all those paychecks).

    Furthermore, losing a player for such long periods of time might give coaches the extra push to teach the borderline hits out of their players’ heads. You think the Penguins may have earlier had a more serious discussion with Cooke had they known the next hit would garner 14-17 games (whereas before, a hit as violent as the one on Savard meant nothing?)

    I agree with Daniel in that the league needs to implement far stiffer penalties for the hits. The culture shock can come in the way the hits are legislated. One particularly violent and devastating hit might also do the trick, but I think general changes in the way punishment is doled out would be a much better model.

    My original argument was that these penalties could be stiff enough to incite change without necessitating a return to pre-lockout rules, like the absence of the trapezoid. Does anyone really want to see the trap system make a comeback?

  3. Pittsburgh native, buddy. I understand Frans Nielsen has taken some hits this year. Two from Pittsburgh guys – Talbot and Letang. Letang was served a misconduct and ejection, though replay showed he made clean shoulder-to-shoulder contact. The Talbot collision left Nielsen mildly concussed, but again, no contact to the head was made. I didn’t see Gaborik’s hit, but it comes as no surprise that the league isn’t about to hand out any discipline to one of the best players on one of its most marketable teams which happens to be in a scratch-and-claw playoff hunt.

    I agree with the author that the game needs to be more conscious of player safety. I think that needs to come from a shock to the culture of the game, and not rules changes that serve to regress on improvements made after the lockout.

    • Daniel Friedman says:

      Guys, this article was not specifically targeted at the Gaborik/Nielsen incident, though I state my opinion on the matter above. This was about the general inconsistency with which the NHL handles this issue.

      Honestly though, I think it will too late by the time there’s a shock to the culture of the game, and to be honest, I’m not sure what you mean by that. What do we have to wait for? For someone to get killed, as was mentioned in the Brett Hull quote?

      Rule-changes and stiffer punishments need to be implemented now, before something horrific occurs in our sport.

  4. James your views are a joke….the only Islander not to be defended is Gillies….the other you know nothing about and are judging wrong…guess thats why CT has no more team. Learn your game!!

  5. The Islanders aren’t going to elicit sympathy from anyone outside Long Island when it comes to hits to the head and other dirty plays.

    In the same sense that people took Lemieux to task for speaking out on such play yet still employing Matt Cooke, any mention of hits to Frans Nielsen has to be tempered with the mention that players like Trevor Gillies and Michael Haley play on the team – I bring this up because they should be on the shortlist of guys who need to take seriously the notion of respecting fellow players (and even Martin, who I believe tried to do the old Bertuzzi on Max Talbot in February).

    What the league needs is not more rules, or the dissolution of the ones that came about after the lockout. They need to begin enforcing the rules, and enforcing them severely enough that guys aren’t able to play with total reckless abandon.

    That enforcement means guys like Dany Heatley will land 8 or more game suspensions, not 2, for a hit to the head. Matt Cooke and Mike Richards would have been handed 20+ game suspensions for their hits to Marc Savard and David Booth a year ago. Todd Bertuzzi would have received a suspension, recognizing that someone can’t escape punishment after having spent a few years on the honor roll after ending someone’s career.

    Zdeno Chara would have been held accountable for having to understand where he was on the ice, and intent would not have been a contributing factor to his non-suspension. Trevor Gillies would have received a season-ending ban for his flying elbow and repeated blows to the head of a defenseless and injured player. Islanders management would have been fined MUCH more heavily for knowingly calling up “fighting” players on the eve of a game in which they were out to avenge DiPietro’s fight, something the players acknowledged afterward. That sort of discipline has to hit the people who coach and mentor the players, not just the players themselves.

    I don’t think the game needs to have its improvements fazed out in order to ensure player safety. You mentioned respect as a chief factor in keeping guys safe. If the NHL cannot legislate good judgment and decency into its players, the least it should do is implement a clear and harsh system of discipline that will instill in a player’s mind a moment of doubt that will temper them in the instant just before they key in on the head of a defenseless opponent. If they are made to hesitate, even a little bit, in that split-second before the potentially harmful impact, hits that bring into question people’s intent, character and regard for health will go away.

    The hits will still be there. Its a game, a contact game, one played at ridiculous speeds. But the NHL can certainly create a culture of restraint without robbing itself of the gameplay that made it popular following the lockout.

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