Should the NHL start using its head?

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c o m m e n t a r y

With a compelling playoff race, unprecedented parity and an exciting product on the ice, the National Hockey League has bounced back from the lockout of 2004-05 in a way few would have predicted.

Despite the game’s success, the league is facing a crippling, on-ice problem that has become dreadfully recurring: hits to the head that result in serious injuries to star players. To some players, the body check is used not for positional advantage, but as an attempt to injure.

This season, there has been an alarming number of examples of this growing phenomenon: Willie Mitchell of the Vancouver Canucks gave Johan Franzen of the Detroit Red Wings a concussion with an open-ice check in November.

Pittsburgh’s Colby Armstrong blindsided Montreal’s Saku Koivu with a shoulder to the head in February. Most infamously, Ottawa’s Chris Neil caught Buffalo’s Chris Drury with a hit last month that instigated an ugly brawl, which resulted in fines and suspensions for both teams. There are many more examples, but these three notable hits had much in common: they all went unpenalized and are considered legal by NHL standards.

The question that must be answered has two parts: Why the sudden rash of shots to the head and how can they be eliminated from the game? The body check is meant to be employed as a purely positional tactic. A clean, well-timed hit can stop an offensive rush in its tracks.

For many years, that’s how the body check was used. There is often talk of an unwritten code in hockey, meant to keep players in check. From the 1960s to the early ’90s, players were aware that attempting to injure an opposing star player, within the rules or not, was crossing the line. It was within the “code” for an enforcer to challenge the offender to a fight. One of the reasons Wayne Gretzky was rarely hit as an Edmonton Oiler was the presence of Dave Semenko, whose sole purpose was to avenge whatever injustices were committed against his team. Semenko would fight whomever crossed the line, both players would get five-minute penalties, and the message would be sent.

Unfortunately, this militaristic style of order spawned too many bench-clearing brawls for the league’s liking. The Philadelphia Flyers, then known as the “Broadstreet Bullies,” won two Stanley Cups arguably by intimidation alone. The instigator penalty was introduced in 1992 with the intention of reducing fighting by assessing the player deemed responsible for staring the fight an extra two-minute penalty. But the league made a tradeoff with the implementation of the instigator penalty—the code became impossible to uphold without penalizing one’s team. Gradually, players realized that as long as their checks remained within the bounds of the rule book, they face little consequence for running at opposing star players. After Armstrong hit Koivu, Canadiens all-star defenceman Sheldon Souray nobly stepped in to take on Armstrong, but received an extra penalty plus a game misconduct. The Canadiens went on to lose the game without the services of their best defenceman. Players with short tempers chose to take more damaging, impulsive measures. On March 8, 2004, Todd Bertuzzi’s brutal attack on Steve Moore was a heinous attempt to defend his fallen Vancouver teammate, Markus Naslund. Last week, New York Islander Chris Simon received a 25-game suspension for slashing New York Ranger Ryan Hollweg in the mouth after Hollweg hit him cleanly into the boards.

There are two measures the league can take to stop flagrant hits to the head: Firstly, they must eliminate the instigator penalty, so players will no longer take cavalier attitudes toward questionable hits. Then, to keep fighting under control, they must introduce stiff, standard fines. Many players would rather take a hit to the pocket than hurt their team’s chances, but it would still send a message that fighting is to be used only when necessary. Unfortunately, until the league figures this out, the most skilled players will continue to play in fear.

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