On 'finishing the check'

As the annual general managers meetings get under way in Florida there is little doubt that a significant portion of conversation will focus on concussions and the prevention of them. Sure to be hot topics at the GM meetings include rink safety, player equipment, and the effectiveness of Rule 48 in its first year. Although specific ‘changes’ to the way the game may come up in conversation, it’s unlikely that any drastic measures will be taken by the league.

One quick early tidbit of information to come out of the meetings on Monday was a statement from Gary Bettman claiming that only 17% of concussions are the result of illegal hits to the head (via Chris Johnston of the Canadian Press). That leaves 83% of concussions to be accounted for from clean hits, fights, pucks to the head, and various other bumps sustained from a game of hockey. The fight discussion is one for another day, but a quick YouTube browsing of some of the more infamous concussions sustained over the last couple of seasons led us to an interesting conclusion. A number of head injuries sustained in the NHL result from players being hit by an opponent who is simply finishing his check.

So, you gotta at least ask the question, right? Is ‘finishing the check’ necessary to the flow of the game?

Insert rage from curmudgeon set here. We’re not saying that hitting should be removed from the game, but we are saying that the league could look at the act of ‘finishing a check’ and whether or not it is necessary.

Take a look at the Matt Hunwick (not Matt Cooke) hit that essentially wiped out Marc Savard’s 2010-11 season and has once again put his career in jeopardy:

Had Savard been pursuing the puck as opposed to just having shoveled it along the boards, Hunwick probably would have been slapped with an interference penalty on the play. Instead, Hunwick is allowed by NHL rules to rub Savard out along the boards. Savard himself even declared the hit perfectly legal, and under NHL rules – it is.

Victor Hedman’s hit that may or may not have been the one responsible for Sidney Crosby’s concussion is also another instance of a player finishing his check:

Sure, there’s a special place in hockey hell (or is it namby pamby land?) for any softy blogger type that suggests making the game less physical, but how can the concussion epidemic be properly dealt with if we continue to ignore its causes?

The players aren’t getting any smaller and the game certainly isn’t going to slow down. As Pierre LeBrun stated on this past Saturday’s edition of the Hotstove on Hockey Night in Canada: hits per game across the league are up 40%.

Should a player that does not have control of the puck continue to be considered a legal target?

Rule 56 in the NHL covers “Interference”, and it’s in place to prevent a player from impeding another player’s path to the puck while it is up for possession. Rule 56 also clearly outlines what can be considered ‘possession of the puck’:

Possession of the Puck: The last player to touch the puck, other than the goalkeeper, shall be considered the player in possession. The player deemed in possession of the puck may be checked legally, provided the check is rendered immediately following his loss of possession.

The NHL has rules in place that, in effect, protect its players from being checked before they have possession of the puck, but a player is fair game to be hit after moving the puck.

Deeming a player without clear possession of the puck an illegal checking target would most certainly decrease the number of hits in the league, but is it a measure that can be taken without compromising the integrity of the NHL’s physical nature? That’s not easy to answer, and I’m not kidding myself here – any approach to altering the way body checks can be delivered will be met with more opposition from hockey people than support – but it’s something that deserves a look if the league is really going to get serious about player safety.