The very fact that Colby Armstrong is allowing himself to be punched in the head is, in itself, paradoxical.

“But you didn’t have to hit him.”

“Ellen, he had his head down. He was coming through the middle with his head down. Guy does that, he’s gonna get hit.”

“No, he’s not. Not necessarily. He’s only going to get hit if you choose to hit him.”

M sighs heavily. Everything M does, he does heavily. He’s a big man, more than six feet, more than two hundred pounds. Now on the far side of thirty, he’s gone a bit soft at the midsection, but you can still see the shadow of the player he used to be, when he was young and dreamed of making the pros. That player, although he’s mostly faded now, must have been a terror. Even now, M inspires a little dread among the people he plays with. He’s one of those guys who’ll always be muscular, always be strong, no matter how little effort he puts in. His temper is short and his hockey values are very, very traditional.

“You don’t understand,” he says. “If you’d played, you’d understand. Guy does what he did, kid or no kid, I gotta hit him. That’s hockey.” A few of the guys arrayed around our argument nod agreement, the others stare at their shoes. No one is going to take my side.

The kid was fourteen and not very good, but bold as Taiwanese kids are, with a penchant for trying to streak his way single-handed into the offensive zone. He’d been trying to do just that, coming down on M with speed, fixing to make some kind of snazzy move, when M leveled him. Not a full-on hit, by Canadian standards, more of an emphatic standing-up, leaning from almost a dead stop, forearms out, right into the kid’s head. It was like watching a sparrow fly into a brick wall. The kid bounced off him and sprawled on the ice, dazed.

Apparently he’s okay, the kid that is, but it was a bad scene. M is going to get in some kind of trouble over this, and he feels that’s unfair. He is adamant that he did nothing wrong. I’ve been arguing with him for an hour now, bringing up every counterpoint I can think of: it’s a non-contact league, the kid was very young and much smaller, this is not Canada and Canadian hockey customs don’t necessarily apply. Doesn’t matter. He doesn’t care. For M, there are certain inviolable principles inherent in the very core of hockey and among them is this: anyone who skates through the middle with his head down needs to get laid out. Period. It’s not a situational thing nor a negotiable one. It’s the law. Eddie Shore brought it down from the mountain inscribed in stone, a commandment from the hockey gods.

***

That was my first personal encounter with this commandment- thou shalt demolish those who have their heads down- but it’s fairly pervasive across all levels of contact hockey and especially among the pros. I’ve heard variations of it expressed by the heirophant Cherry and the encyclopedic Marek, by distant television commentators and close personal friends. You can hear Dion Phaneuf and Alex Ovechkin expressing it here. Back in the early days of my fanaticism, it used to be part of the standard response to a knock-out hit- too bad, but that’s what happens when you skate with your head down. What might have begun as a principle of self-protection- learn to keep your head up or some unscrupulous person will try to take it off- eventually evolved into a principle of aggression- if you see someone with his head down, you have a moral duty to try to take it off. It became embedded in the culture of hitting.

I find it odd that this principle doesn’t come up more in the larger hockey community’s conversation about headshots. You will often hear people talking about how concussive hits are hockey plays gone bad, but what goes unsaid is that the whole reason they’re ‘hockey plays’ is that ‘hitting unobservant heads’ has long been considered an essential part of hockey. Headhunting isn’t something that just kind of happens sometimes because of a few bad eggs, it’s something that’s been part of the fabric of the game for decades. It’s something that today’s generation of NHL players grew up with, and for years it has perpetuated a powerful culture of victim-blaming in hockey.

The belief that anyone with his head down deserve to get destroyed has, historically, conditioned professional players to sympathize with the hitter rather than the hittee, which in turn drives the NHLPA’s historical tendency to lobby against intensive supplementary discipline measures. Many of the limits on fines and suspensions that limit effective deterrence are mandated within the CBA, and it was not the owners pushing for them. It was players, who felt that it was more important to protect their bank accounts than their brains. Of all the obstacles to implementing dramatically stronger punishments for headshots, the NHLPA is potentially one of the most powerful. In the new CBA negotiations, it could kill almost any proposed safety measure either through its opposition or its indifference. And so the forces of reform are in the ironic position of having to persuade players of the importance of their own safety.

There has, of course, always been a contingent of players who don’t want to get hit. Some players carry the puck more than others. Some roles mandate that a man must attempt sophisticated moves in dangerous areas, plays that will sometimes force him to have his head down. There are any number of motions- reaching for a puck, making a turn, skating hard- that put a player’s head at optimum brain-pulverizing height. For a lot of skill guys, vulnerability is something you have to risk to make a play.

Back in the day, though, when everyone thought that the worst consequence of taking a huge open-ice hit was getting a bit shook up, ‘not wanting to get hit’ wasn’t a valid thing for a hockey player to express. It sounded like cowardice or weakness or a lack of understanding of the game. There was no valid grounds to object to that style of hitting, and therefore the idea that the victim deserved could go unchallenged within the culture.

We’ve seen that change a lot in recent years. Now that concussions and CTE provide a legitimate grounds to object to the targeting of players in vulnerable positions, more and more players are objecting. There are far more quotes now to the effect that we need to get these kind of hits out of the game and nobody wants to see that and it’s really dangerous. Most of these are from guys who’ve had to sit due to concussions or their teammates, but it’s spreading.

The problem is that these guys- the skill players who have been prominently concussed and those who increasingly talk publicly about their fear of being concussed- are still in the minority. A famous minority, of course, a minority with lots of name recognition, but still a minority. In the balance of work in the NHL, there are far more players whose job it is to stop the elite than there are elite, and many of these players- the checkers, energy guys, pests, shut-down lines, and enforcers- still see themselves as more likely to be the victims of supplementary discipline rather than the victims of concussive violence. As long as a majority of players fear the Shanaban more than they fear a concussion, it will be difficult to get the NHLPA behind stronger disciplinary measures. The outspoken skill players can create a conflict within the Players’ Association, but on their own, they can’t win it.

The NHL is an amalgamation of different constituencies, and making the game safer requires persuading these constituencies, one by one, that a safer game is in their interest. The fans and media are, I think, well on their way to being persuaded. The next essential constituency is the NHLPA. If we are to come down harder on head hits, there must be an argument for safety that might win over even the hitters. There needs to be something persuasive enough to counterbalance their faith in the traditional principle of dutiful headhunting.

I submit that the case of Colby Armstrong might provide this argument.

Colby Armstrong, as you might remember, used to be quite the reckless hitter. He wasn’t a very good hitter, mind you, having a tendency to throw himself into checks with limbs flying everywhere like a disordered scarecrow, but he was enthusiastic and irresponsible and he did some damage. His coaches, apparently, loved it, and it is presumably part of what inspired Brian Burke to offer him a spectacularly ill-advised $9 million, three-year UFA contract. Truculence, etc.

Then the injuries started. There was a tendon problem, then a scratched cornea, then a broken foot, then a high ankle sprain, making for a total of 55 missed games in just two seasons- a perilous run of bad luck for a third-liner under any circumstances. So when he took a hit from Ryan Kesler and started feeling concussion symptoms, he tried to cover them up. He managed to hide it all of two days before being found out and put on the long-term IR to recover. He didn’t play for months.

As Harrison Mooney very aptly pointed out at the time, Armstrong had every reason to try to hide his symptoms. He’s not a star player. He’s a third-liner, a thwacker, a grinder-in-corners. With no great hands or miraculous hockey sense to commend him, durability is a necessary part of his skill set. Without it, he risks becoming unemployable.

A team will wait for Sidney Crosby or Chris Pronger or Claude Giroux. Those players are tremendous investments and the franchise has every reason to want to bring them back only when they’re healthy and effective again. Elite players may risk more concussions but they also benefit from more concern and more patience when they get them. The bottom six, though? For them, even one concussion could easily mean the end of the career.

This is the Armstrong paradox, then, that the third-liners suffer the most either way: it is their job to hit close to the line, and therefore they will always bear the brunt of whatever fines and suspensions are on the books, but if they get hit beyond the line, they’re likely to lose that job altogether. No matter what the disciplinary regime, it’s the bottom of the roster that will feel the worst of it. The only issue that remains, for them, is which is worse to endure: suspensions or concussions?

The traditional resolution to this paradox was prefer restricted suspensions and try to play through concussions, and for years, presumably, it worked. But as Armstrong discovered, in this climate, it won’t work any more. Everyone is far too aware of the symptoms. Teammates, trainers, doctors, coaches, friends and family will notice runs of headaches, nausea, poor balance, confusion, light and sound sensitivity. They’ll ask questions, and they have very little remaining incentive to conspire along with the pretense that nothing is wrong just to keep a marginal player on the ice. In 1975, a player might have successfully played through a concussion with vague references to headaches or trouble sleeping, his weak play dismissed as nothing more than a slump. But now? People will figure it out, and they will take you off the roster when they do. For players like Armstrong, off the roster is half a step away from out of the NHL.

First-line players have been facing the fact that concussions might end their career for decades. Now, however, fourth-line players are going to have to realize that it’s just as likely for them, and perhaps even likelier. If there is any constituency in the NHL who has a deep and vested interest in never, ever receiving even one concussion, it is players on the margins of the roster, those who will only get one chance at making the Show. In a concussion-aware world, their interest finally changes: far better for a replacement-level player to be sternly punished for laying a bad hit than to be summarily dumped in the AHL for receiving one.

Going into the new CBA this summer, there are forces colluding to push the NHLPA further in the direction of player safety than ever before. There’s a real opportunity for getting the players behind a stronger disciplinary regime than they’ve been willing to support in the past, with an eye towards deterring concussive hits. However, such a regime has to be designed in such a way that the greatest number of players can support it, which means- I think- drawing a major line between first/second offenders and chronic offenders. Some commentators, moved by Matt Cooke and his come-to-Jesus moment, have been lauding automatic massive suspensions as the ideal deterrent, but it’s going to be nigh on impossible to get a preponderance of NHL players to agree to the notion that any hit to the head might cost them 5% of their salary or an automatic 3-game suspension. Too many players can imagine themselves accidentally miscalculating the seconds and inches and crossing the line once or twice in their career, and they’re right to imagine that- there’s no player in the game so clean that he never once made a bad decision. But a proposal that raises penalties dramatically for each offense (say, squaring both fine and suspension every time, not including prior offenses but starting from a clean slate with the new CBA) might find far more support.

What we often forget when proposing new punishments is that the players are not only objects of the disciplinary regime but co-creators of it. The NHL cannot simply dream up a system and impose it as though skaters were unruly children or bad dogs. To have the slightest hope of being implemented, any revised disciplinary structure must speak to the interests and desires of the players who will be playing under it. Thankfully, for perhaps the first time ever, the interests broad cross-section of players are starting to weigh on the side of deterring concussions rather than causing them. You can thank Colby Armstrong for that.

 

Bonus link:  Brad Richards talks about the NHLPA and player safety here.