Eliminating Head Shots

21 Jan 1999:  Scott Stevens #4 of the New Jersey Devils in action during the game against the Los Angeles Kings at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. The Devils defeated the Kings 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Kellie Landis  /Allsport

Every year, we talk about dangerous hits, generally either head shots or blind-side hits.  We do this every year because each and every year there are at least half a dozen hits that result in long-term injury to somebody, and generally they’re either head shots or blind-side hits.  Eventually, some politicians and the non-hockey media will start talking about the need to regulate the game, eliminate head shots, and deal responsibly with concussions.  The NHL will always respond the same way; they’ll introduce some minor, ineffectual changes, declare the problem solved, and let it blow over until it comes up again in the playoffs or the following season.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.  It’s as predictable as strife in the Middle East – sure, the specifics change, but the basic headline (“Violent headshot injures star”/“Middle East in turmoil”) is the same and I’m pretty sure I could write one generic article and just re-write the specifics and insert a new video clip every other month without seeming any less relevant.

(Note to Score higher-ups: I don’t do this.  There’s absolutely no need to go looking at old articles I’ve written, you can take my word for it.  This does not happen.)

In any case, there’s a very, very simple measure the NHL can do to make it clear that they don’t want headshots in the game: outlaw them.  It’s very simple: any blow to the head will result in a penalty, with the penalty being either a two-minute minor or five-minute major, depending on the severity of the hit and the judgement of the referee making the call.  The IIHF already does this.  This eliminates the need to decide if a player intended to take his opponent’s head off; any contact to the head would be penalized.

The fact that the powers that be in the NHL don’t ever talk about going in this direction makes it plain they don’t especially want to eliminate head shots.  Sure, they don’t like it when a star player goes down, or when an embarrassing clip goes up on the evening news, but I think they do like to see players get nailed hard, sometimes in the head.  I’m talking about the classic Scott Stevens-style hit here: sure, he may have ended/altered careers, but those hits typically ended up on highlight reels, and the comments I’ve always heard tend to be along the lines of ‘Whoa, that sucks, but man he’s got to keep his head up!”

I like hitting.  I enjoy watching a well-placed body check.  And, in theory, I like the idea of a player with his head down getting plastered by a big hit.  However, the consequences of these hits bother me more and more as time goes on.  I don’t want to see hitting leave the game, but I do think that perhaps it’s time to stop being entertained by guys with the puck getting clocked in the head.

How is this different than fighting?  I think that’s pretty simple: when two players decide to fight, both are accepting the accompanying elevation of risk level.  They acknowledge, by dropping the gloves, that they might get punched in the head.

Ultimately, however, my thoughts on this have roughly the same value as any other individual, be they in government, the media, or the NHL’s fan-base: close to zero.  It isn’t going to be external dissent that changes minds, it will be a conscious decision, either on the part of the NHL brass (when they decide the bad press/missing stars aren’t worth it) or of the NHLPA (when players decide that the risk of being knocked in the head outweighs the benefit of being allowed to knock other players in the head).  Neither side has shown much indication that they’re seriously interested in changing the equation, so for better or worse the status quo seems to be the most likely outcome for the foreseeable future.