Lockout Opportunity: Hits to the Head

The NHL has entered its third lockout in as many tries under Mr. Bettman’s commissionership. The fissure, and therefore the dominating storyline, centers on distribution of hockey related revenue, contract term limits, and escrow. In short, finances. The blame game is also taking up a healthy amount of copy. 

However, unlike the previous lockout where reforms were made not just to the distribution of finances, but to the actual on-ice product, there has been little discussion on ways to improve the same this go-around. If crisis creates opportunity then it makes sense for the League to look beyond the dollars and cents (millions of each) to other core problems that could be addressed.

Lockout Opportunity: No More Neutral Zone Trap

Lockout Opportunity: Back to the Future


It’s going to happen… in an NHL game… on live TV. At some point a player is going to take a hit to the back of the head that jams their neck into the boards and subsequently paralyzes them or worse.

Yes, it’s been written about ad nauseum with opinions from every person who has a least one finger and a keyboard, but until it is effectively eliminated from the game it continues to deserve attention.

To show how you inept the league has been at addressing this catastrophe in waiting I’ll tell you about the FIRST time I thought it had definitely happened.

In November of 2008, then Montreal forward Tom Kostopolous hit Toronto Defensemen Mike Van Ryn in the back of the head pinning his neck in a disgustingly awkward position against the boards. It was so brutal and the consequences seemed so assured that I instinctively jumped out of my seat, said some unprintable words of desperation, and eventually fell back into my seat with exasperated relief once Van Ryn showed some movement.

November of 2008 and yet I write.

Instinct vs. Intent

There was no way a neck could be impinged in that matter without serious injury. No way. Necks simply don’t bend that way. How Van Ryn escaped a serious neck injury should be studied by scientists and theologians. However, that does not mean he was unscathed.

With increasing disconcertion we are becoming more aware of the long term damage concussions inflict on our brains. Van Ryn may have avoided a broken neck, but he was carted off the ice with a severe concussion in addition to a broken nose, a gash on his forehead, a broken hand, and a few teeth short of a full set.

Do we need a broken neck before something definitive is done? Shouldn’t that car wreck of a medical chart be enough?

I don’t believe Kostopolous intended to injure and I take him at his word when he stated as much, but that does not excuse him.

Hockey is a fast game that changes so dramatically and so suddenly players are forced to react on instinct. Often there just aren’t enough milliseconds to alter your instinctive reaction and often it is the other player’s last millisecond reaction that changes the dynamic of the play.

However, part of a player’s instinct has to tell him that as you chase the puck into the boards with an opposing player there is an extreme likelihood the lead player will at some point have to bend down to play the puck thereby placing himself in a vulnerable position.

But then you have the Ruutus (Jarkko), Carcillos, and Cookes of the game. Their problem isn’t instinctual recognition. Their problem is a complete lack of respect for the game, their colleagues, and as such, themselves.

It’s one thing to have the wrong instinctual reaction on a bang-bang play which Kostopolous did. It’s an entirely other beast to intentionally head hunt by launching your body, elbow first, directly at an opposing player’s head, which the above mentioned have done on multiple occasions.


Don Cherry
(Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE)

So what is the solution? In the case of instinct, the League and hockey’s keepers in general can do a couple of things, the first of which is already being implemented. Teach the younger generation to react appropriately when they see the last name and numbers of an opposing player as they head to the boards. If it isn’t already, the same should be a part of orientation for rookies, draftees, and junior players.

Second, take some sage advice from Don Cherry – a man who professes his love for hard nose, old time hockey – and get rid of touch-up icing. Sometimes we are quick to add rules to solve a problem when removing a rule will do as much good. Touch-up icing foments hits to the head and should come off the books.

Third, exact a meaningful amount of punishment without room for interpretation. If we are to change player instinct then even instances where intent is questionable merit an automatic suspension. Players will fear going anywhere near an opposing player’s head lest they risk a suspension for an accidental hit to the head. When a player knows there is absolutely no room for interpretation and the consequences will be severe then their behavior will change.

Lastly, in the instance of intent, not only does the League need to step up with stronger punishment, but ownership, players, and fans need to step up as well. A repeat, intending offender should have his contract voided and the team should place what would have been the remainder of the offending players salary into a fund for the study of concussions, spinal cord injuries, and to pay for the care of the injured player.

It should then be impossible for the offending player get a contract in the NHL. Not because the rules say so, but because fans should be outraged that their team would consider signing him and players should refuse to play with these guys on the ice. They may take a hit to their manhood, but at least that’s a hit then can walk away from.

What’s more important?

Having played the game for more than three decades I readily concede that hockey is a dangerous and violent sport. It is something that just simply has to be accepted if you want to play the game or enjoy the game as a fan. In fact, it’s part of the attraction. But it does not have to be reckless.

There is a scene about to unfold that no fan is rooting for – a motionless, paralyzed player lying on the ice, a hushed crowd, desperate teammates motioning for trainers, and the look of helplessness on the faces of the trainers attending to the player.

We thought we saw it with Max Pacioretty.

I actually have seen it happen to a friend.

I do not want to see it happen to yours.

The lockout is an opportunity to definitively address hits to the head. In the immortal words of Maury Finkel, “Do it.”

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