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Head Games: NHL Playing with Fire by Condoning Head Shots

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Canes Country Mail Box

Just to change gears here a bit, I decided to take some time out and answer a couple of emails.

Vince, from Connecticut sent me the following email last week:

The trend I have been seeing the past season or so now appears to be the norm. The Neanderthals have won. The head high hit with the shoulder is getting way out of hand. Since the league does nothing to stop this it is only reasonable that you will have an incident like the one in Philly (Mike Richards) last night. Why just this week the Montreal defenseman Bergeron was shouldered in the face by an Atlanta player and that guy in Chicago got blindsided with one to the noggin by someone leaving the penalty box. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

I have said this before and I’ll say it again, there are people in the hockey that won’t be happy until someone gets flattened and does not get up. Then they will still blame the victim.

Vince and I have exchanged emails on a few occasions about other topics and I agree with him about this. I have never liked watching crushing blows to the head.

There have been a lot of bad hits lately and of course Carolina's own Tuomo Ruutu was recently involved himself as he received a three game suspension for his hit on Darcy Tucker. But you never saw a word of complaint about that suspension from anyone in the Caniac Nation, the team, or even from Ruutu himself. Everyone recognized that the hit was unacceptable and the punishment was pretty much justified.

But what about some of the other hits you see out there?

The Mike Richards hit on David Booth, the prototypical "legal hit" can be just as damaging as Ruutu's hit, if not more so. Ruutu's hit was deemed illegal because Tucker had his back to him and did not see him coming. Richard's hit was legal because Booth had his head down and did not see him coming.

In both cases the victim never saw the hit coming, but in one case it's perfectly legal, in the other it's not.

"You've got to keep your head up", that's the mantra of the folk who love to watch players get carried off the ice on stretchers. The question that I have is, what happens if the puck is at your feet or behind you? What if it's a bouncing puck and you are trying to control it? There are some cases when hockey players need to have their heads down if they want to see what they are doing.

Case in point, Ron Francis. In the 2001 playoffs against New Jersey, Scott Stevens, a player who earned a living by handing out concussions, nailed Ron Francis when he was not looking. Francis staggered to the bench and had to leave the game as well as the series. Of course hockey "experts" as well as the league office, could not convey fast enough that the hit was all Francis' fault. He did not have his head up.

That's right, one of the best players in hockey history, second only Wayne Gretzky himself in all-time assists, was suddenly not smart enough to keep his head up?

The fact of the matter is, everyone has their head down at some point or another. Opponents can either try to take advantage of that by attempting to injure them, or they can play with respect and keep the contact body to body.

The rules concerning head hits almost seem arbitrary and inconsistent. If you hit a guy with your elbow, that's a no-no, but it's okay to lead with your shoulder. If your arm comes up after the hit, that's okay. Are elbow hits more dangerous than solid shoulder hits?

If you leave your feet, that's a penalty. If you leave your feet after the hit, again it's legal.

If a player turns his back to you and you hit him from behind, again a no-no. Yet isn't that similar to a player with his head down?

Another puzzling thing is that the NHL seems to value knees more than they do heads. If one player is deemed to take out another player's knees on purpose, that act is penalized and is worthy of suspension. Not so with a head shot. But couldn't you use the same logic with knee hits that you use with head hits? Shouldn't the player keep his head up and avoid the knee collision?

More and more players and ex-players are starting to speak up about this.

Ex-Hurricanes captain, Keith Primeau, has been interviewed recently by several media outlets. This particular one was with USA Today. Here is an excerpt:

P: I don’t disagree. I think there’s lots of different issues at hand. That certainly is one of the pieces of the equation. For me, again, the question was how do we do it different? How does that scenario become different? For me the scenario is: it’s gotta be body contact. If he’s going to make that hit over the middle, it’s gotta be contact to the player’s body. Ultimately it could be the same result. I’m here to tell you that from my past history that it’s a cumulative effect and I certainly don’t discount the amount of body contact over the years as not having an impact. It certainly did. But still, the head, there has to be off limits or else we’re creating and we’re setting a dangerous precedent. And so for me, what has to happen is when he’s coming through the middle and he wants to make contact because he’s not going to be known as a soft player, he’s gotta make body contact. There can’t be contact to the head.

Puck Daddy recently interviewed RJ Umberger, who when asked about the Richards hit had this to say:

Even though it's clean, it's still a hit to the head and it can end that guy's career. You watch a play [and wonder] if a big hit there is really necessary; he didn't have the puck anymore. If Richards just picks him up and stays with him, he's eliminated from the play. There's really no reason to drill the guy.

Some fans are not going to like that reply, but he has a point.

Here are a couple of recent articles in The Hockey News about the topic.

  1. Players Speak Out
  2. The Blame Game

And some recent questionable hits on You Tube:

First a hit in a junior game from a couple of days ago which left the victim in critical condition.

Next a hit from James Wisniewski on Shane Doan which resulted in a suspension.

Finally a recent hit by Andrew Ladd.

James Mirtle talks specifically about the Ladd hit on his blog, From the Rink.

Fans are as divided about this as players. Some are afraid that if you make head-hunting illegal, it will take the hard hitting aspect out of the game. Others say that body to body hits can be just as exciting.

Should all hits to the head be penalized? Should the NHL step in and make some rule changes? Bottom line, it's up to the general managers and board of governors. They control the league office. Jim Rutherford has complained about hits to the head on several occasions, so at least one GM seems to want change.

Is the league waiting for the worst to happen?

(Have a question to be addressed on Canes Country? email