Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Polarizing opinions: It's time to ban head hits in hockey

Much buzz is being made about Sidney Crosby's return to the ice in full gear Monday, as well as the NHL's 5-step plan to finally address the concussion issue.

The NHL's plan ranges from softening the equipment to more padding around the rink, and creating a committee to do research. It's entirely a sham. Changing the equipment just means that players are going to find more ways to hurt people, and eventually the size and speed of the game is going to catch up to the changes that are made. You're just delaying the inevitable, until, one day, your five-point plan finally consists of what it should have been Monday:

Step 1: Ban all contact to the head.

Steps 2-5: See step one.

You always hear this stupid argument about how people will stop watching hockey if hitting to the head is taken out, or that some players are bigger and can't actually control where their hits land.

Of course there was no ill-intent in Dave Steckel's clipping of Sidney Crosby back during the Winter Classic, but it's not like Steckel had his head turned. You have played thousands of shifts in your life in all levels of the game. Know where people are around you and act accordingly. Players need to be responsible of where they are on the ice. As much as Sidney Crosby shouldn't be absent-mindedly skating around at the end of a period, David Steckel should probably recognize that Crosby can't see him and avoid contact. It's the same argument that we have for the high-stick rule, which puts the onus on players to have more control over their sticks.

Bottom-line: Avoid reckless play that could result in injuries.

You can argue about intent until the sky turns pink, but in the end, while all hits to the head can't be avoided, a huge number of them probably could be. The world didn't even blink when Ryan Getzlaf knocked Dan Hamhuis into a dream-like state back in early February.

Getzlaf used his shoulder and Hamhuis had just played the puck. According to the rulebook there's nothing wrong with this hit. And that is just what is wrong about the state of headshots in this league. This case is a clear example of where the current rule fails. Gary Bettman supposedly said that 75 per cent of concussions resulted from legal plays, making the much-discussed 'Rule 48' useless.

Some of the irony here is that the guys who argue that headshots are part of the game tune into the World Juniors every year and act surprised when a Canadian player is kicked out of the game for hitting some unsuspecting Bulgarian in the head. But up until that point, in a game where contact to the head is illegal, as is fighting, people can't really tell the difference. It's terrific hockey, filled with plenty of rough play that will keep the blood-sport enthusiasts tuned in.

If you say that it ruins the game (or "castrates" the game, my favourite to this point) I urge you to watch an OHL game, where head-hitting results in a game-misconduct, and compare it to a WHL and see if there's any difference in excitement level. Both leagues are equally capable of exciting games or boring games with no passion.

Eventually, with junior and minor leagues slowly turning ahead the clock and coming to grips with the fact that head hits are needlessly dangerous and concussions are a serious issue, you're going to have a league full of players who don't know the limits anymore. Without a similar line on head hits to the minor and junior ranks you're going to have some players taking runs without any knowledge of the consequences. Not being a drinker in high school meant I didn't know how dumb it was to take 14 shots of vodka one September night when I first came to university.

I want to open a newspaper (or a new tab on Firefox) and read stories about an incredible ending to a game and watch videos of saves that defy human kinetics, rather than spend an afternoon reearching some player's suspension history and be part of outraged crowd after the suspension fails to deter a future act.

End head hits. Do it now, since you're going to do it eventually. Do it before the mother of the next Wayne Gretzky takes her son out of hockey because somebody has died on NHL ice.

1 comment:

  1. Bang on Cam, well agued. The quality of life issue is too serious to ignore. I don't think I'm being alarmist to be legitimately concerned about a generation of former players, unable to get out of bed some days in their 40s marring this era of hockey.