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.

Comments (3)

  1. “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.”

    I think the acceptance of elevated risk is taken when any player, whether NHL or Pee Wee, plays the game of hockey. I grew up knowing that I could laid out at any time while playing this great game and I sure did at times, especially being a smaller player.. Every time I did, I would sit on the bench and think to myself how stupid it was to put myself in that position and what can I do next time to avoid being destroyed. I do not condone the blind side cheap shots as being apart of this risk acceptance, even though it is well known that alot of morons play this game to hurt people but there are rules in place to curb those actions… even though it does happen and will always happens due to the emotional nature of hockey. Again, one of the first things anyone learns when they play this game is to be aware of your surroundings at all times (keep your head up). Concussions usually occur when a player does not “expect” the hit a la David Booth, Marc Savard, Sidney Crosby, David Perron, etc. I think its ridiculous for a guy to think he can run around the trolley tracks with his head looking back and not expect a D to close the gap or to cut into the slot admiring your sweet drop pass and not get taken out of the play by a backchecking defender or extending your reach to poke a puck knowing there is a 225pd man coming at you. Anyways, I can go on but I think there has to be a balance between policing the hitters and holding the vicitims accountable for “poor” situational decisions. A blanket rule will kill the physicality, in turn, the very nature of the of the game which is already lessening by the year. Perhaps more attention and player education should be put towards players properly protecting themselves against the “hockey plays” that are apart of the game instead of looking for more ways to “protect” players and their poor decisions.

  2. Guys aren’t willingly accepting the fact that they may be blindsided. Thats what needs to change. Dany Heatly should be suspended 20 games. Marchand too. Absolutely give a penalty for any headshots. It’s ridiculous! Listen to the players, everybody is sick of it, guys are retiring, there are way too many brain injuries to these professional athletes. It’s terrible to not try change when so many people are suffering such devastating injuries. The league obviously has it’s own agenda, the players are doing it to themselves, and the public is so torn on the matter that change is happening at a snails pace. Crazy.

  3. [...] theatre,” and hypothesized that the only way dangerous hits will be eliminated is through the banishment of any hit to the head. Head shots are clearly a major issue, and given the head-ramming events of the past week and the [...]

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