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NHL General Managers Finally Act on Headshots. Sort Of.

I suppose we should be glad that the NHL’s General Managers meeting in Florida has finally produced some concrete action against headshots. It seems not a week goes by where somebody in the world of hockey gets their head smashed by an opponent’s shoulder or elbow, or is shoved head-first in to the boards at high speed. These types of hits are tough to watch, and they often have devastating effects. Some of the after effects of these hits are still unknown to doctors, which, to me makes them even more dangerous.

Frankly, I’m appalled that the NHL took this long to investigate the matter. For years the old guard stood there and claimed that by wiping out headshots, you would be taking the physicality out of hockey. I know I’m not alone in finding that statement to be absurd. Since when does ensuring the safety of player mean that you are promoting the “pansification” of hockey, as Mike Milbury puts it?

How utterly embarassing were things within the NHL before today?

On the way to work yesterday, I read a story by Jeff Z. Klein and Stu Hackel regarding Matt Cooke’s hit on Bruins center Marc Savard, and it had a couple of quotes that worry me greatly.

“the question really is, when a shoulder makes contact with the head, is that going to be termed illegal – because right now, it’s legal” – Colin Campbell

In reference to blatant head shots, like the Ted Green/Wayne Maki incident of 1969 and Dave Brown’s cross-check to the head of Tomas Sandstrom in 1987 Campbell has this to say:

“We don’t have these things anymore….we’re talking about cross-checks to the head, sucker punches to the head.”

Campbell claims that league crack downs have eliminated this sort of thing.

So what is the problem with these quotes exactly?

On the first, it sounds like he has no intention of punishing a hit that is currently deemed as legal. I guess he really can’t and shouldn’t try to invent punishments at random. But is there not a penalty for intent to injure? Cooke is a repeat offender, after all. You can make the strong case that he did precisely what he intended to do. At best, Campbell may give another slap on the wrist for hitting an opponent while defenseless. In the end, although Cooke is a repeat offender, he probably won’t be penalized very harshly, if at all. That’s pathetic, because there is no justification for letting those sorts of hits go unpunished.

On the second quote, it appears as though Campbell’s memory is fading. He says that we no longer see cross checks to the head, or sucker punches. But wait a minute…didn’t he suspend Daniel Briere for cross checking Scott Hannan in the head in November 2009? Yes he did. He also suspended Danny Carcillo for sucker punching Matt Bradley in December of 2009. Yes Colin, indeed we don’t see those things anymore.

Did we not just witness an Olympic tournament that displayed the best of what hockey has to offer? And we saw it without headshots, without fighting and without making hockey and less tough than we all like seeing it. So what is so difficult about instituting a ban on head shots? If the best players in the world can avoid knocking each other’s heads off, why can’t other players follow suit?

It is utterly shocking to me that the General Managers, and the player’s union did not take this more seriously before now. The players are what sell the game, and they’ve been dropping like flies in recent years. Colin Campbell, for his part, has not helped matters at all. His wildly inconsistent disciplining has only served to exacerbate the problem, and frustrate fans who have come to label his process of determining appropriate punishment as “the Wheel of Justice”. Want an example of what I mean by wildly inconsistent? In November 2009, former Canadiens forward Georges Laraque was suspended for 5 games for his knee-on-knee hit with Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall. Then, just a few days ago, Campbell saw it fit to give Minnesota Wild goon Derek Boogaard just 2 games for a similar knee-on-knee hit. You’d expect this sort of discrepancy if Boogaard was a star in the league, but he’s far from it. He’s the type of player that Commissioner Gary Bettman has been trying to squeeze out of the league with instigator penalties and rule changes that focus on speed and skill. It’s that sort of inconsistency and randomness that has dogged Campbell for years now.

Today the league has finally put something in writing with regards to blindside hits to the head. A panel of General Managers came up with the following language to define the new rule against headshots:

“A lateral, back pressure or blindside hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and or the principal point of contact is not permitted.

A violation of the above will result in a minor or major penalty and shall be reviewed for possible supplemental discipline.”

Is it just me, or is that not nearly enough? Like I mentioned, I suppose I should be happy that something has been done, but what is with these half measures? Like Major League Baseball when it first instituted anti-performance enhancing drug rules, this penalty is obviously nothing but lip service. It feels like this rule was put in place just to quiet people down. Does it make sense that a marginal hooking call, or an accidental delay of game call is given the same penalty as a headshot that could sideline a guy for months, as it did with David Booth? Why could they not have taken a serious stand? In my view, a more appropriate penalty – one that shows that the GMs care and are serious – would be a 5 minute major, a game misconduct, and an automatic review with the Wheel of Justice, who would presumably have less reason to be so random.

What I don’t think will work is lifting the instigator rule. While I don’t like the rule at all, I don’t think it changes anything. Instead of guys having their heads scrambled by an elbow, or shoulder, they would instead get it scrambled by fists, as fighting would likely increase with the fear of being penalized and tossed from the game for instigating removed.

Personally, I don’t think today’s implementation will change anything. The NHL does not seem to have taken any steps to educate the players about respect, and it does not seem to want to look at the issue of body armor as weapons. These are 2 more items that the league and player’s union should look at. The Rock ‘em Sock ‘em culture still exists, and guys are not only looking to separate the man from the puck, they are looking to intimidate and take opponents out. The idea of “sending a message” continues to escalate itself, and until the players learn that their speed, and power has exceeded the skull’s ability to protect the brain, I don’t see much changing. I still think someone will be crippled or killed before the NHL gets serious.

Because the nature of concussions and brain trauma is not yet fully understood, I think the league needs to swallow its pride and be safe rather than sorry. It won’t ruin or change the game. Perhaps I’m a softy, but 30 years from now, I want to be able to see and hear today’s players take part in ceremonies and interviews, without the need of using a walker, and with their full, vibrant memories intact.

How do you feel about the league’s first step to stem the tide of headshots? Are you satisfied that the league has finally done something, or is this just nothing more than public relations?

  • http://www.thecheckingline.com Prax

    I don’t mean to plug, but I wrote a long article on my site about this… my stance on this is that it’s a start. I just hope the league will actually do something with what they’ve announced today and not just use it as a quick fix to get everyone to shut up about the matter. I’m willing to see where this goes. But Campbell’s inaction in regards to the Cooke on Savard his is inexcusable. He should have been suspended for one of the many reasons Kyle pointed out.

    Anyway, the blog, is anyone wants to read what I summarized above: http://www.thecheckingline.com/blog/george-prax/nhl/its-start-gms-take-stance-against-head-shots

  • http://www.stayclassy.net Kevin Burgundy

    I like the way Tyler put it, as well. To me, establishing a “definite need to do something” was the absolute bare minimum thing to do.

    It’s what any of us would have done years ago. Why the hockey media is praising this is beyond me. I flat out question how much GMs and Campbell care about the players safety if its taken this long to react. This shouldn’t be about “keeping the game the way it is”. As it is right now, the game is dangerous.

  • http://www.cowhideandrubber.com Kyle

    @Tyler – what a great way to put it: “It seems as though they came away from the meeting doing just enough to not be accused of not doing anything.” Really nice!

    @Justin – Why on earth they would bother to go through all of this discussion, only to further embarass themselves. This needed to be swift and decisive, and it’s just the opposite.

    @Chris – I think the first thing that needs to happen is players need to be re-educated. I really do. And of course, the stiffer penalties.

    To further my point, to fall back on the rules and wash your hands of it because you set a precedent with the non-suspension to Richards is lame and spineless. The NHL, Bettman, Campbell, the GMs, and the players union all ought to be ashamed of themselves. They all share blame in this, and they all need to give their heads a shake before someone rattles it for them.

    All that said…can’t wait for the Penguins/Bruins rematch on March 18th. It will be a highly rated game in the U.S. just wait and see. And whatever problems stem from that game will be well deserved as far as I’m concerned.

  • http://thehockeyzen.com Chris Nadeau

    Kyle, thanks for sharing your opinion. If anything it is a start. However, like you mentioned, I think safety has to become apart of the culture of the game and is #1 priority? Because right now it seems like we are trying to have both. This will be a major overhaul, but it should start somewhere.

    I certainly think that part of what makes hockey a great game is that it is a hard physical battle. But, I do think the game can be improved by making changes. Too many kids are getting serious life-altering injuries that are avoidable. I’m not saying we can take the game to a 5-star safety rating, nor would we want to, but I think the NHL will continue to have pressure as long as these incidents continue.

  • http://www.thehockeycardshow.com Justin Kendrick

    Great article. After reading the description of what kind of hit will be targeted for this new rule I thought they hit the nail on the head (so to speak). But totally agree that the punishment is ridiculous.

    If you look at the penalty/discipline for players that fight at the end of a game I think that should be applied to the head shots. It’s automatic, do not pass go, do not collect a million dollars. Make it a standard 1 game, then leave it to the league to apply more games. 1 is small but 1 is a hell of a lot better than 0. This should, SHOULD also effect “superstars” because it will be an automatic wheel of justice.

    It seems like the NHL is making a good step towards resolving whatever the hell happened with all the players going head hunting crazy but 2 minutes in the box or even 5 seems like a waste of time.


  • http://nhldigest.com Tyler @ NHL Digest

    I agree that the new suggestion is not nearly enough. It seems as though they came away from the meeting doing just enough to not be accused of not doing anything.
    With reference to intent to injure. There is no such penalty in the NHL Rulebook. There is a rule “Intent to injure an official” however.

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