by Joe Tasca on 12/15/11 at 11:00 AM ET
Over the past few weeks, I’ve pondered writing about a variety of topics, namely realignment, Sean Avery, and no-touch icing. But it’s hard to get off the concussion train, especially when you consider how many premier players are sidelined with head injuries right now.
Even the most passionate hockey fan would be hard-pressed to remember a time when so many stars were out with concussions. It’s almost as if the scrambled brain epidemic is getting worse, even though body checking is seemingly at an all-time low.
I’ve always been of the opinion that virtually nothing can be done to combat concussions. Nothing, that is, outside of banning body-checking altogether. It’s simply impossible to avoid violent collisions in a game played at such a high speed.
Obviously, the NHL will never outlaw body-checking. Instead, the league adopted the new head-shot protocol in hopes of cutting down on the number of concussions. Indeed, players have adopted well to the new standard, which has resulted in a substantial reduction in big, open-ice hits. Unfortunately, it hasn’t led to a noticeable reduction in head injuries.
It may take awhile to sink in, but I think people will eventually realize that you can only do so much to make the game safer. With that said, I can’t help but wonder if the league is going to take more drastic measures come next season if the current concussion trends continue.
The focus on head shots has had ripple effects on the way the game is played at all levels. Former Toronto Maple Leaf and current Kingston Frontenacs head coach Todd Gill has noticed a considerable drop-off in body-checking in the Ontario Hockey League:
“Five years ago some of these hits would be considered great hits. The secret as a coach is to tell the players to get in as fast as you can on the forecheck and finish your checks and if you’re going full speed and a kid turns, it’s an awful tough play to stop your momentum. I know that you have to and you should, but there’s going to be times when these incidents happen.
“You catch a guy with his head down, nine times out of 10 it’s going to be a head shot because at the last minute the first reaction is to duck. Even though you aren’t targeting the head, the head goes right to where the elbow or shoulder is and it’s an automatic head shot. … Is it a head shot because he ducked into it or is it a head shot because you targeted the head? This game is so fast, how is the referee supposed to determine between the two?”
Gill went on to say that the only way for a player to definitively avoid contact with an opponent’s head is to not finish his check. It sounds ridiculous, but Montreal forward Max Pacioretty said he’d reached that same conclusion after being suspended for three games last month after drilling Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang:
“(T)o be completely honest with you, I’ve been scared to hit people out there. A lot of times you’re going in on the forecheck and the defenseman turns his back to you . . . it’s a fast game, injuries are going to happen, that’s why it’s tough on someone who is expected to finish their hits.”
By placing the onus entirely on the defending player, the NHL (and other pro and junior leagues) has inadvertently encouraged the puck carrier to skate with his head down. Niagara IceDogs general manager Marty Williamson says that could lead to more concussions, and it’s also resulting in players trying to draw penalties:
“I can now skate around with my head around my knees and if somebody hits me, it’s a head hit. And don’t think these kids don’t know that. They know what the rules are … we don’t want that. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the nature of the business. If it can draw a penalty, teams will do whatever they have to do to manipulate the system. But that’s not good for anybody.
“I know this isn’t what (OHL Commissioner Dave Branch) wants, but this is the by-product. We’re not teaching that. That’s for sure, because I don’t want to see anyone with their head down. I don’t want to see kids hurt.”
I’ve always struggled with the idea that head injuries are preventable in hockey. Recent concussions suffered by Claude Giroux and Milan Michalek show that guys can just as easily get their bells rung by a teammate, nevermind an opposing defenseman. The game is just too fast.
The ongoing concussion problem is causing hockey leagues to ask players to make rational decisions in the blink of an eye. It’s not a realistic expectation. No matter how careful they are, defenders committed to a body-check can’t always avoid contact with the head, so the only reasonable alternative is to avoid contact altogether. Max Pacioretty explains the conundrum:
“(M)aybe I shouldn’t have even thought about hitting (Letang) because of the way the wind is blowing right (now) with head shots, but I’d like to see a little bit of consistency.
“If the onus is on the hitter every single time I’d be fine with a suspension, but you’ve seen instances where they’ve placed the onus on the person receiving the hit as well so I’m confused and a lot of other players are confused right now.”
Edmonton’s Andy Sutton is also confused. After being handed an eight-game suspension for a hit on Carolina’s Alexei Ponikarovsky last week, Sutton wondered why puck carriers are often given a free pass:
“At a certain point we have to start keeping our heads up and knowing who’s on the ice. You can’t be skating around with your head down and not (expecting) to get hit because everyone is going to get suspended. There has to be ownership all the way around…”
If you’re a fan of tough hockey, it’s disconcerting to hear players talk about how they’re hesitant to throw a body check because they’re worried about accidentally hitting an opponent’s head. The fact that guys are starting to play the game on edge, as opposed to with an edge, should serve as a wake-up call to everyone who loves this great game.
It’s safe to say players are starting to get the message when it comes to the new head-shot protocol. But while well-intended, the message has had unintended consequences on the integrity of the game. I’m just hoping the messengers will soon realize that injuries are an unfortunate part of hockey, which is, after all, a contact sport.
Without contact, the NHL is nothing more than defensive-minded shinny. The lack of hitting this season has opened the eyes of many, and it’s resulted in a frightening lack of intensity on many nights. Rangers center Brad Richards described Tuesday’s 1-0 loss to Dallas as a “boring type of game.” John Tortorella said “there was not a whole lot of hate out there.” Not surprising, considering there wasn’t a single notable body check delivered in the contest.
For my money, there have been more boring types of games this season than in previous years. If the league continues to enact rules that discourage hitting, the problem will be exacerbated. The NHL has pushed the envelope as far as it can, and it’s important not to leap past the point of no return.
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About Tasca's Take
Tasca's Take is written by Joe Tasca. Born and raised in Westerly, Rhode Island, Joe works as a broadcaster for seven radio stations in southern New England. Whether that's a testament to his on-air ability or because he has a desparate need for money is debatable.
Joe spends his summers playing golf, enjoying the beauty of Misquamicut Beach, and wining and dining girls who are easily awed by the mere presence of a radio personality. During the winter months, he can usually be found taking in a hockey game somewhere in North America. In the spring, he spends much of his time in botanical gardens tiptoeing through the tulips, while autumn is a time to frolic with his golden retrievers through piles of his neighbors’ leaves.