There has been a lot of talk around the league recently about the problem of "head shots" and what, if anything can be done to reduce the number of concussions that players sustain each and every year. The league's Board of Governors has discussed the dilemma in detail and the general managers in the league have created a committee to study the problem in even more depth.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently hinted that a new rule, or "standard" might be brought forth next season, but is a change in rules really necessary? Shouldn't the athletes who play the game and risk life and limb have more input into the process?
Before he was fired, ex- NHLPA President Paul Kelly indicated that 75% of the player's union wanted a change in rules. (Perhaps this is one of the reasons Mr. Kelly was relieved of his duties, he really did not have the proper pulse of his constituency?) I spoke with a few of the Hurricanes about the subject, and none of them called for a rule change or a new rule to specifically govern head shots.
But they all did agree on one thing: It's a tough subject.
Brandon Sutter feels that some hits to the head can not be avoided. "This is really a tough subject to make rules on because a lot of times, it just can't be avoided. It's just part of the game. Obviously, as a league and as players, we need to try to cut down on it, but concussions are going to happen, they're part of the game."
Sutter was knocked out by Doug Weight last year when he was in a very vulnerable position. I asked him if he had any ideas or suggestions how to eliminate those kinds of hits. "Maybe players should try to be more responsible and we can eliminate as many (head shots) as we can. But I think you just go out and play, and guys are going to get hit and stuff, it just happens. I don't really know what the answer is to it, but hopefully the league can figure something out and hopefully it will help."
Matt Cullen is another player who suffered a concussion because of a devastating legal hit. But he also does not want to change things much. "It's really tough to put a ruling in place because hitting is a big part of the game, it's one of the things that makes our game great. I'm not one of the guys who has much to say about this. I understand that it's a really tough topic, a hot topic right now, and we're losing some really good players out there due to concussions. But at the same time, hitting is a big part of the game and you don't want to take that out of the game. It's one of those things where you hope there are some smart people who will figure out what to do because it sure is a hard thing to enforce."
Cullen admits that when a player has his head down, sometimes bad things happen. "When a guy has his head down, sometimes it can't be helped. So it's one of those things that is tough. Guys are getting bigger, stronger, and faster, and the rinks are staying the same size and there are some big collisions."
Could a larger rink make a difference?
Scott Walker said that a rule against all hits to the head would be a tough one to enforce. "This is a very tough thing. How do you make a general rule about head shots when you have a guy like Zdeno Chara hitting a guy like me? Or guys even smaller than me? He goes to hit me, his elbows, well even his hips are about at my head. It's just too tough to say that every head shot is going to be a penalty."
Walker doesn't think that enhanced equipment changes will help, either. "I think everybody realizes how big and how fast guys are now. It doesn't matter what they are trying to do with the equipment. I know they're trying to come up with soft cap shoulder pads. But it doesn't matter about the helmet or the shoulder pads. The speed of the guys and just a jarring hit to the chest can give you a concussion because it can snap your head back."
When asked if he had any suggestions, Walker had this to say. "I don't think there is one specific thing that can be done. I think players have to see if someone is vulnerable, and maybe you have to let up. But then if you let up, the coach is all over you the next day. "You got to finish that guy, why did you let up?" Or even worse, you let up on a guy and he does a dippity do and comes back on you and scores, then you really look bad, so it's tough, it's extremely tough. I don't know what they're going to do, or what they should do, but the good thing is that they are talking about it and they are trying to do something. I guess the idea is that they know they can not eliminate concussions, but maybe there will be fewer? That would be a step in the right direction."
Tim Gleason thinks the league should be more strict in some regards. "I think you have to look at some of the guys who might be taking advantage of it, maybe (the league) should be more strict, penalty wise or suspension wise."
Lovers of old-time hockey will enjoy his suggestion. "I think a lot of it goes back to the instigating rule too. Guys know there is an instigator rule and they might take that for granted. They know if they hit someone in the head, no one can really come after you. Not that I think players go out there with the intent to do that, but at the same time sometimes you have a player who has the job to be physical and sometimes the elbows come up, or whatever the case is, so I think there has to be a little more pressure on the league in regards to current penalties and suspensions and just make them more strict than they are right now. "
A lot of hockey fans would love it if the instigator penalty was revoked. John Forslund has spoken out against the rule himself, but would the old brand of vigilante justice help to reduce head shots, or make things worse?
Players are trusting that the league will make the right decision regarding the "head shot" dilemma, without neutering the game they love. Will the new "standard" Gary Bettman refers to turn the game into a constant shuffle of special teams? Will it take away from the hard hitting that fans are accustomed to and love?
The controversy is not going away anytime soon, and there are no easy answers. Perhaps the NHLPA will want to get involved in the process once a new Director is appointed?