The debate over whether to suspend and for how long might just be a distraction.
One major issue with the latest two suspension-incurring headshots in the Ontario Hockey League, not to blame promising rookies Jared McCann and Spencer Watson for getting injured, is why the two 16-year-old forwards got hurt by checks that each seemed like hockey plays when watched in real time. Another is wondering whether the OHL's practice of long suspensions for checks to the head — AKA #BranchJustice —is butting up against frustration from the paying public and perhaps a few owners weary of seeing key players suspended, while the brain injury crisis continues unabated.
Even in slow-motion — and after a lot of healthy debate on Twitter — it's not clear how Barrie Colts defenceman Ryan O'Connor deviated from making a hockey play when he injured Watson last Saturday. The Barrie captain got a major and game misconduct after catching Watson looking down for the puck and was suspended indefinitely. Was there shoulder to chin? Was O'Connor's upper arm the culprit? Did inertia cause his elbow to come up and bang Watson's chin? At what point, noble as the aims of reducing brain injuries is, does one accept the head sometimes the head gets in the way since it's attached to the torso?
Watson, who sat out Monday when Kingston was pushed to the brink by Barrie, was also skating toward O'Connor. What defenceman worth his ice time isn't going to try to deliver a solid check.
The collision between the Owen Sound Attack's Cameron Brace and the Soo's McCann was in a different vein. It's less of a hockey play, yet still mostly one, for a 19-year-old playoff-hardened veteran to send a message to a rookie who's also a top-6 forward. Brace could have passed on cutting in front of McCann to deliver the check on a player who was leaning forward after making a pass. There's definitely the vulnerable-player aspect, which does help explain Brace's five-game suspension, but it did not appear to be headhunting.
Rehashing the debate is not the point, though. It's wondering how the OHL, two seasons into an approach that has resulted in more than 300 games' worth of suspensions (that includes bans for obviously unacceptable acts, such as Niagara's Ondrej Kopta two-handing Oshawa's Scott Sabourin in the face last Sunday), can avoid a backlash or fallout. The fact McCann and Watson, , who were both among the league's top five 16-year-old scorers, are sitting at home a little scared about when they will play again cannot be sloughed off. Brace's teammate Jarrod Maidens, who scored the goal that won Owen Sound the OHL championship in 2011, has not played a game in 16 months due to a brain injury. That goal came six days before Joey Hishon 'got his bell rung,' which put him out for 22 months.
Sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle when there's a Twitter uproar over the latest stiff suspension.
Yet the OHL and major junior hockey is also in the entertainment business, albeit it with very young performers. Some of the criticism can be the threatened-by-change thing, but like it or not, the public taste shapes the product. One has to think people don't want a no-contact league. Ambitious young players, their parents, their agents, want to show they can play a man's game, in scout-speak. Quibbling over how many games someone got just distracts from the big question of how to balance all of it.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org (video: Rogers Television).