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Check Your Head

By George Malik The "head-shot" debate has turned into the latest gripe-fest between those who believe that hockey is becoming a "soft" sport every time a physical blow is made illegal, and those who want to prevent injuries. Both sides of the argument generally have put forth thoughtful and considerate arguments (relatively speaking), but they're also using the debate as the latest battle upon which the very fabric of the game and future thereof depends. Come on now, let's be honest. When the commentators get involved, it becomes a contest of power and a gripe-fest. The hockey establishment and its representatives in the radio, TV, print, and online media try to proffer their arguments into gains in terms of power and influence; an element of "stewardship of the game" remains, but we all try to look after our own interests when we argue with one another. In this case, it's the "old school" against the "new school," and that old school's got a hundred years of history behind it, so the case of blows to the head has become a fertile battleground for both parties. Let's cut the rhetoric out for a moment. Let's talk about the physics involved instead.

Anybody who’s taken stationary slap shot, swung a bat, or thrown any ball knows that the power that goes into your shot, swing, or throw comes from transferring your weight from one foot to another. 
A left-shooting hockey player winds up by cranking his or her stick back, and they bring the stick forward and downward, shifting their weight from their left foot to their right foot as the stick hits the puck and continues forward.
You don’t have the strength to kick a puck up to 100 miles an hour, but if you add that stick to the equation to maximize the power of your swinging arms and the sheer strength of transferring kinetic energy from your body’s mass—in part to your other foot and in part to the puck as you swing through—the energy transfer applies tremendous force upon the puck, propelling it forward at a significant velocity.
When you add a player’s forward motion to any of the aforementioned sports’ “shot-taking” activities, you transfer a significant part of your forward momentum into your shot as you transfer your weight from one foot to the other while powering through the puck with your stick and arms. 
Bottom line, it’s all about energy transfer, and when a stick’s involved, that implement can help multiply the force of that energy transfer to the puck, which is why you can spend $200+ US for a precisely-tuned stick.
Checking applies the same principles to transferring energy from your body to the body of another player.  The difference is that there’s no force multiplier involved, so it’s simply a matter of body-on-body contact, a simple collision like a car crash, playing marbles, etc.
A player uses the same concept of weight transfer from foot to foot to help transfer their mass into a horizontal collision, using your thigh, hip/butt, or arm to hit another player.  You can nail another player to prevent them from taking a shot, taking or receiving a pass, you can knock them over, knock them into the boards, and as we can direct our body’s force in the types of motions we use, we can target the player’s knees, hips, torso, or head. 
In this case, the weight transfer that is at the centre of good hitting technique involves either a simple shift of body weight from one skate to the other, or a combination of shifting from skate to skate while sticking out the hip or shoulder in an explosive motion, depending on the intended target. 
As forward or sideways motion from skating increases the energy transferred from player to player, you’ll often see players take five or six strides to get up to their maximum speed before coasting into the hit.
If a player leaves his or her feet while hitting, the player very literally transfers the kinetic energy of their horizontal momentum, skating velocity, and entire body’s mass into their opponent, but charging is seen as a dirty play, as are shots to the knee or thigh. 
It’s the issue of directing force that separates a good, clean check to the body from a head-shot or a clipping play where the player intends to take out another player’s knees or thigh. 
When a player goes for another player’s head, they often “submarine”—when they’ve stopped skating and are coasting in for the final second or second-and-a-half before the hit, the player squats down to lower their centre of gravity, and they then explode upward and outward, shifting their weight upward by both springing at a 45-degree angle and extending the shoulder outward and upward.  If a player’s caught on the jaw or temple with a hard, shoulder-pad-cap blow, they’re out cold before they hit the ice.
A hit like this is explicitly intended to not “finish a check”; it’s intended to hit a player in the chest or head.  There are occasions where players who are intending to wallop a player in the chest stick their shoulders out and clip a player on the chin…
But there’s a problem.  A lot of the “don’t admire your pass or you’ll get plastered” hits, the ones that concuss players on a regular basis, are the results of a clean shoulder-to-shoulder intended hit that ends up making contact with a player’s head for a few reasons:
A. There are occasions where both the checker and player who’s unaware of the hit coming their way almost miss each other, but the hitter’s shoulder will end up clipping the player’s head, just as a player attempting to avoid a knee-on-knee hit may end up doing more damage to his opponent’s knee. 
Several of Scott Stevens’ most devastating hits on Eric Lindros involved either intentional or unintentional extensions of the shoulder by Stevens as Lindros moved out of Stevens’ skating lane.  The issue of intent is the problem here—Bryan Marchment also claimed that he never intended to hurt players’ knees, and Ulf Samuelsson said that he didn’t intend to clip players in the upper thigh, just as Stevens said he never intended to concuss, but they didn’t re-train themselves to stop sticking out their knees, hips, or shoulders whenever they hit another player. 
B. Our heads are at different elevations, depending on what we’re doing.  When Jason Williams skated around the Red Wings’ net, he was skating into a tight turn around the net, attempting to use his body weight to induce a spin that would allow his stick to beat Roloson to the post, so his head was lower than it would have been had he been skating.  The issue with the Williams hit is that Torres took a fifty-foot, Roenick-like run at Williams, seeing that he was going around the net and did not see him as he was focusing on both Roloson and Jason Smith, who’d blocked out the slot. 
Torres specifically went out of his way to make a high, hard hit on Williams to send a message, just as he’d done on Milan Michalek, who was similarly concussed, and Doug Weight, whose shoulder was dislocated.  Whether he knows it or not, when he lines players up, he almost inevitably aims with the top of his shoulder instead of his mid-body elbows or his hips.  We’re talking about both intent and poor hitting form here.
C. Height is an issue as well.  A 6’4” player who’s attempting to lay on a solid hit by horizontally extending his will probably make contact with a player who’s 5’8” or 5’10,” just as a player who’s 5’8” or 5’10” will probably make contact with the knees of the 6’4” player when they attempt to make a solid, clean horizontal hit with their butt or hips.
As you may have gathered, it’s my opinion that this is a matter of mechanics here. 
When NHL players, coaches, and executives argue that it’s impossible to re-teach players how to hit, that the game is “too fast” for hitting players to see that they’re about to make contact with another player’s head, and adjust accordingly, or that eliminating blows to the head takes away from the fabric of the game, I have a simple reply: they’re professional athletes. 
They know how to control their bodies, and if they can re-learn how to use body position instead of hooking and holding to get in the way of an oncoming player, they can learn to push their shoulders outward instead of upward, and to pull up.  These guys know how to check their shots if the puck’s bouncing, how to anticipate passes from their teammates, how to execute offensive and defensive systems, and learned how to reduce knee-on-knee hitting.  They can learn how to refine their hitting techniques without reducing one ounce of physicality from the game. 
Head-shots aren’t about rhetoric; they’re about the direction of bodily force that generates collisions in a physical sport.  If the mechanics of hitting have gotten out of whack, and are leading to head injuries, then players can refine the ways in which they hit their opponents.  Checking is a skill, and the increase in head injuries that’s resulted because of the renewed emphasis on body positioning can be readjusted to redirect the energy transfer so as to reduce the incidence of shoulder-on-head hits. 
All it will take is practice.

Filed in: NHL Talk, George James Malik, | KK Hockey | Permalink


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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

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