Thu Jun 16 12:38pm EDT
Credit the Western Hockey League and commissioner Ron Robison for realizing checks to the head are only a cause of concussions and not the cause.
Ironically, in a newscycle where the hockey riot in Vancouver became the above-the-fold story, Robison (pictured) and his league rolled out a seven-point plan it hopes will reduce on-ice injuries. The WHL has long been perceived as being less vigilant than the Ontario Hockey League has been under commissioner David Branch. The proof will be in the pudding next season, but it is promising tougher penalties and suspensions — and better equipment.
The WHL Seven Point Plan is a comprehensive approach to addressing this important matter and includes the adoption of new playing rules; more severe suspensions for repeat offenders; production of an educational video on risks of concussion; educating the players to be more responsible for themselves on the ice; a seminar for all WHL Head Coaches and General Managers; new soft cap elbow and shoulder pads; expanded research data and a review of all WHL arena facilities safety standards.
The WHL Playing Rule changes includes the adoption of a Checking to the Head penalty for lateral and blind side hits to an unsuspecting opponent in open ice where the head is targeted or is the principle point of contact. The WHL also tightened the standard on late hits as well as charging and interference penalties to address players building up significant speed and hitting the opponent along the boards with excessive force. (WHL.ca)
One wishes this could have been announced at a better date than the afternoon before Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, but that is neither here nor there. There is a lot to like about the WHL's mandate. Expanding the checking-to-the-head rule is one thing, but eschewing the hard-cap shoulder and elbow pads that can become weapons is a positive step. (Players still need that harder protection in the chest and torso since shot-blocking is a bigger part of the modern game; it's not just for defencemen and penalty killers any more.)
So is affirming that more boarding and charging penalties might be called, as Robison mused about during the season. We all love contact and collision, the nature of checking in hockey is to change the flow of play and get the opponent to hesitate about going into tight spaces, not to actually injure someone.
As noted up top, the proof will be in how it this is all carried out once teams are playing games that count in the standings. The bottom line is after a MasterCard Memorial Cup in which the Owen Sound Attack lost their best player, Joey Hishon, to a head shot, and then lost their leader, Garrett Wilson, when he was checked from behind while turned toward the boards, all three CHL circuits will have more stringent rules. Ideally, it would not remove the physicality from hockey, but it is going to make people less reckless about how they use it.
The only quibble is that, as Gregg Drinnan pointed out, fighting is still permissible.
The one disappointing thing is that the WHL has done nothing to limit fighting. So while the WHL is acting in an attempt to cut down on checks to the head, it has done nothing to limit fists to faces. (Taking Note)
Not to let the league off the hook, but such a change might also be a decision that rests at the CHL level. Removing fighting would be such a Rubicon that it would require the OHL, WHL and QMJHL to sign off on it as one. Ultimately, just getting to the point the WHL did this week is a major step from even 5-10 years ago.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Sports Canada. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: CHL Images).