November 14, 2008
"If you say you can't have contact with the head, you are going to reduce the amount of checking in the game and you are going to change the way the game is played." - NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, TSN's "Off the Record."
Bettman's fear regarding a ban on hits to the head is echoed throughout every level of competitive hockey. In the aftermath of Doug Weight's open-ice hit to the head of Brandon Sutter of the Carolina Hurricanes, and Toronto's Mike Van Ryn getting hit from behind by Montreal's Tom Kostopoulos, Mike Milbury called such a proposal the further "pansification" of the NHL.
Ted Baker understands that mindset. The vice president of the Ontario Hockey League, Canada's popular major junior league for players ages 15-20, Baker attempted to pass a ban on hits to the head over a decade ago.
"We took a run at the teams going back 12 years ago. We had [a research] video of a monkey, as to what happens to his brain when there's a shot to the head," said Baker. "But timing is everything, right? The timing wasn't right. The culture wasn't ready for it."
Three years ago, Baker and the OHL decided to test the waters again, this time with success: The League banned any contact between a player and his opponent's head on a check. And rather than Bettman's fear that the game would be fundamentally altered by such a measure, Baker said the OHL is still filled with hits -- but fewer head injuries.
"The only reduction we have in hitting is in hitting to the head. There's still plenty of hitting. There's still good open-ice hits, there's still hitting along the boards," he said. "You can still get'em in the chest. But if the only way you're going to get him is in the head, then you don't take that hit."
But how does a League enforce such a ban, and would its application in the NHL ever succeed?
The OHL has been mentioned prominently in the last several weeks, as head-shots and their repercussions have been thoroughly discussed in the hockey media. From Eric Duhatschek's masterful feature for the Globe & Mail:
The Ontario Hockey League banned head shots three years ago and, according to its commissioner, David Branch, it didn't eliminate hitting or fundamentally change the way the game is played.
Instead, it introduced an element of doubt into the minds of the real problem children in the game - the half-dozen or so head hunters that give the rest of the NHL population a bad name. This, by the way, has not changed since the John Ziegler Jr. era - a small percentage of players always created the largest amount of havoc in the NHL.
What the OHL did was adopt a rule that Hockey Canada had in its rulebook for players in the minor hockey structure in Canada.
"As it states in our rulebook, the act of checking an opponent to the head, in any manner, is defined as a head check, and it will be penalized as either as a minor, a major or a match penalty based on the degree of impact," said Baker.
"A match penalty is for any player who deliberately attempts to injure an opponent with a check to the head. A note of the bottom of that rule states that a hit to the head with the shoulder shall be considered an illegal check and shall be penalized as checking to the head."
The OHL reserves the right to add supplemental discipline for hits to the head. Baker said an open-ice head shot without a significant injury can still earn a player a five-game suspension from the League, depending on what led up to it and the velocity of the hit.
There is still a penalty for elbowing on the books; it's up to the referee whether to hand out either that or a hit-to-the-head penalty. Many head-shot penalties involve shoulders; such as when two players go to the corner for the puck and one takes a shoulder to the head on what is in the NHL a "clean" hit.
"In the past, that would have been a legal check: He didn't charge, he didn't leave his feet, he didn't board him," said Baker. "Now, it's a check to the head. It's an illegal act."
Immediately, one is reminded of the old standards for high-sticking: Minors, double-minors, five-minute majors and misconducts.
Over time, unofficial benchmarks were established by officials for these penalties, whether it was drawn blood or intent to injure.
Baker said intent is only one factor in a referee's decision on head shots, just like the severity of the injury that follows is a factor. But the primary motivation for an OHL referee's decision in cases of head shots is impact.
"The key part of the rule is based on the degree of impact. If there's not much of an impact to the head but there's still contact made to the head -- he goes into the corner, battling for the puck, and comes up and gets the guy in the head -- there's no harm, then you're looking at a two-minute minor, like for elbowing," Baker said.
"If a player's coming through the neutral zone, he lines him up and 'crunch,' he gets him in the head, then your degree of impact has increased and the penalty increases to a five," he said. "We're not pigeonholing. We're saying to the referees: What was the degree of impact to the head?"
Has the OHL ban been a success? Baker reiterated that hitting was still a part of the game, but said other measurements like concussion trends are a bit more difficult to assess, considering they can take place in other plays besides checks to the head.
OHL personnel have said at least some of the hitting has left the game, however:
When it comes to the NHL, Baker said the OHL is "dealing with a different kind of player" than on the professional level, and didn't offer a prediction on how a ban would play there.
But James Deacon of AOL Sports is one of a growing number of hockey writers that believe a ban on head shots should be considered by the NHL:
It wouldn't take a major rule change, by the way - any stick to the head is a penalty whether it's intended or not, so why not a shoulder to the head, or an elbow or a knee?
League officials contend that there are two major downsides to changing the rules on head shots. First, they say they are protecting the traditions of the game, as if the current style of play is as it always has been. The attitude is: it's too bad that great stars such as Patrice Bergeron lose whole seasons because guys "finished their checks," but "that's hockey."
That is a bald-faced lie. It's only hockey of a very recent vintage. If you have the digital sports channels, you can watch entire games from the '50s or even the '70s, an era famed for its violence, without a single boards-rocking hit from behind. The Broad Street Bullies were violent offenders, but they preferred to draw blood with their fists rather than by pile-driving opponents head-first into the boards.
Those who oppose a head-shot ban bring up fighting, saying that it could be a slippery slope from a ban of one to a ban of the other. Which brings us back to Bettman, who said just that in his TSN interview, prompting this response from Stu Hackel of the New York Times:
Bettman also argues that a quarter to a third of the concussions are the result of fights. "So now do people want to eliminate fighting from the game as well because that might result in concussions?"
There's a certain cognitive dissonance in that last remark from Bettman. Head shots and fighting are two different things. Fighting is an act with two willing combatants. But a hit to the head - purposeful or not - is the result of contact by one player on a second player who is unsuspecting and vulnerable. They are not the same situation at all.
And if you can do something that might reduce concussions by two-thirds, or three-quarters, why wouldn't you?
The debate rages on between player safety and "pansification," between legislating against injuries and potentially legislating what are now legal hits out of the game.