Kukla's Korner

The Upper Canadien

NHL violence, brain injuries and a Capital occasion

I received lots of responses to my last write-up on the Chara-Pacioretty incident, and thus I felt it was worth penning a retort of sorts, as there has been lots of good banter and discussion.

First and foremost: I am no bleeding heart. I love a good donnybrook when it occurs, and I have no issues with the physicality of the NHL. However, I do take issue with targeted hitting of an opponent in the head, and I am frustrated with witnessing gruesome injury after injury as the NHL lollygags its way to some sort of a solution.

The issue isn’t hitting, or fighting, or unfortunate accidents.

The issue is hits to the head resulting in brain injuries.

And this is where the discussion often goes off course. My focus isn’t on making hockey any less physical, or complaining about the way the game has evolved. My complaint is that the NHL has devolved into a league of thuggery and goonery, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1970s. Rules were changed then in response to the issues of the day (leaving the bench for a fight, length of a power play) and the rules again need to be changed now.

Unfortunately, hockey has fostered an acceptance of intentional injury. As a fan, I don’t like this. Do you? I have no interest in watching thet Matt Cookes of the world skate around and target people in the knee, head or otherwise, just as I had no interest in watching Bryan Marchment do it in the 1990s.

Be it Mike Richards, Matt Cooke, or Zdeno Chara, we are regularly watching players intentionally target each other with hits that are supposed to hurt, a lot. But they don’t just hurt, they injure the brain. This isn’t a debate, it’s a fact. I watch hockey because I enjoy the game. I enjoy offensive skill, I enjoy goaltenders putting on a show, I even enjoy a good shot block, or a solid, clean hit. I do not enjoy watching an elbow to the head, let alone a stanchion, and I certainly don’t enjoy the after effects, watching players equivalent to those I idolized as a child squirming on the ice, unable to get off, or worse, completely unconscious.

At some point the responsibility falls on the league. To me, that point was last year - but nothing happened. We’ve seen the same hits continue to injure and now, I hope, we are at that tipping point I spoke of earlier in the week.

The first action? Players who appear concussed must be seen by a doctor before returning to the ice. Ok, that’s great - if not a tad subjective - but that’s only a first step (and am I the only person who couldn’t believe this wasn’t already standard practice?). If the issue is teams not having their doctors available, then every team must travel with a doctor. Simple as that.

But the NHL needs to go further. We need a penalty, enforceable by the officials, that targets hits to the head. Two minutes. Plain and simple. Just like
high sticking. I have no doubt it took time for players in the game’s antecedent form to acclimatize to the idea that sticks must be kept down at all times. Surely, if we were able to come to terms with such a rule, we can enforce the idea that an elbow/shoulder/forearm to the head is unacceptable. Remember, the equipment today is much stronger and larger than in years past. A shoulder to the head today does much more damage than, say, twenty-five years ago. Technology has surged ahead, and now the game and it’s rules need to as well.

Why, you may ask yourself? Because people are getting hurt. Seriously hurt. And all of this is preventable. We are talking about damage to the brain, the body’s most important organ. Yes, hockey players in the NHL may make gobs of money, but surely that doesn’t mean they deserve to be gravely injured.

So that’s my two cents, again. I hope it provokes more though and discussion, but I reiterate: I love tough, hard-hitting hockey. Playoff hockey is played that way, and it’s the best you can get. I just don’t enjoy watching men flailing on the ground, or worse yet lying terrifyingly still. And I’d be willing to bet (or at least hope) that the average hockey fan agrees with me.

Habs in tough against Washington

Montreal faces off against the Caps tonight, and despite the lights-out play of Carey Price of late, this is going to be a tough one. Jason Arnott is out for the Caps, but Niklas Backstrom may be back. And don’t forget Brent Holtby, Washington’s newly minted starting goalie, who has put on a show in the past week. Montreal counters with their patchwork defence and an offence that may well be without Mike Cammalleri, who is battling the flu. But if the Habs employ that same stifling system that we saw against Pittsburgh then maybe, just maybe, they can pull this one out of the fire.

7:30 puck drop, and on TSN nationally for those who care to partake.

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Comments

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Be it Mike Richards, Matt Cooke, or Zdeno Chara, we are regularly watching players intentionally target each other with hits that are supposed to hurt.  Oops, I shouldn’t have included Chara because that wasn’t an intentional targeting, it was simply a poor defensive play by a d-man who was being beaten by a forward.

Fixed.

Posted by Garth on 03/15/11 at 03:29 PM ET

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Man o man—- the biggest cause of concussions?  Accidental contact!  Why is that lost in all of this? 

And the yuppie crowd always calls for increased penalties.

Did they call for penalties in NASCAR for getting into accidents after Dale Earnhardt died?  No.  They invented the HANS device.  And it’s worked!

Stop whining for more penalties and focus on a real difference maker—- improvements to player equipment, specifically helmets. 

Same ol… same ol with the yuppie crowd.

Posted by Sig from DC on 03/15/11 at 04:55 PM ET

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By the way, the yuppie crowd never misses a beat with incidents like the Islanders/Pens brawl and Chara’s hit on Pacioretty.  That’s what is driving is much of this discussion.

Thankfully, the NHL values the importance of research.  And that research showed that the majority of concussions are caused by incidental contact… a type of contact you can’t stop from occurring.

So rather than going after intentional contact, why not focus first and foremost on incidental hits to the head.  And the only way to do that is to 1) slow down the game; or 2) improve helmets.

Posted by Sig from DC on 03/15/11 at 04:59 PM ET

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UC, I agree with most of this, but just can’t see the play with Chara as anything other than a freak accident on a routine play in the wrong place when one guy’s twice the size of the other. Head targeting is one thing, but if every pick was grounds for suspension, you’d be seeing guys like Kris Draper or Paul Martin sitting out games for doing something that is normally not dangerous in the slightest.

Posted by steviesteve on 03/15/11 at 05:09 PM ET

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nascar never invented the Hans device..it was developed by Dr Hubbard in the 1980’s almost 20 years before Earnhardt died.. many many drivers died before the device became the norm of today… no hockey player has died

so technology and its advancement is the issue….hmmm i do believe the seamless glass was perceived as advanced… and that is like running into a concrete wall not like the old boards that had lots of give

Habs fans..as you go to the protest tonight…. lets not forget Rob Dimaio.. a player who’s career was ended in Montreal..  i remember the protests about that head shot… He lost his career on a blindside hit to the head into the seamless glass at YOUR arena..

Posted by cberth on 03/15/11 at 06:48 PM ET

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cberth—- If you’d prefer to fact check instead of understanding the message, go for it.  Complaining is easy; coming up with a solution is the hard part.

Posted by Sig from DC on 03/15/11 at 07:48 PM ET

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Wow.  Painfully poor rationale here, UC.  The idea that hits which result in concussions are therefore hits which target the head is really, really soft.  If any of a hundred different things happen the Habs player’s head never comes into contact with anything.

This notion that you can point out the Chara hit as targeting the head just makes you look incredibly desperate to try and gin up a position that doesn’t look 100% like homeritis run amok.

Posted by HockeyinHD on 03/15/11 at 09:41 PM ET

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Interesting opinions and great discussion. Disagree with my view on Chara if you want - I am still convinced he purposely directed Pacioretty into the pole. Regardless, what can’t be disputed is that brain injuries are up, and the incidents that cause them are becoming more violent. We’re seeing a lot more of the Pacioretty/Savard/Booth incidents than we used to.

I shudder to think what kids who idolize Marc Savard think knowing that his career could be over. When I was eight or ten, if Adam Oates had been erased on the ice the way Savard was, I would have been left very upset. Worse, I might have thought that such a play was ok.

Be it equipment, player size, or the game itself, that is the issue and it has to be dealt with. To date, it has not been properly addressed.

Posted by The Upper Canadien from Toronto on 03/15/11 at 09:58 PM ET

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WOW

I just read the stats and the number 1 cause of concussions is NOT accidental hits. Get your facts straight if you want to attack the author of an article. The number 1 cause of concussions, according to the statistics released by the NHL is LEGAL HITS. Legal hits accounted for 44% of all concussions documented in the NHL’s study. This means that right now the NHL is sanctioning the cause of nearly 50% of the concussion in the game of hockey. The incident that THIS article is about, coincidentally, is a legal hit which caused a concussion and deemed perfectly acceptable by the NHL.

The issue that we as fans have to reconcile is do we want the best players in the game playing the games we watch, or not remembering who they are. I am a huge proponent of physical hockey. I believe it is an intrinsic part of the sport. Give me a hard fought physical battle any day. But, does that mean that we have to have players carried off on stretchers or wobbling around on the ice, not knowing where they are, to achieve such a product.

I would answer no. And to support such a claim, that you can significantly reduce the amount of concussions in the NHL without removing the physical aspects of the game that a lot of us so enjoy, I would direct people’s attention to the NFL. The NFL has been very proactive in instituting rules to protect their players. There adjustments have been by no means perfect, but they have made many adjustments that have prevented their players from encountering undue risk.

When a player like Sidney Crosby, by anyone’s account at least a top 5 player in the NHL if not #1, has to miss significant time because of a concussion from a “legal” hit this should cause each and everyone of us to take a moment to pause. It would be very easy for the NHL to institute rules to prevent this from occurring.

1. Any player who hits a player in the head, intentionally or unintentionally, will be given a 5 minute major.

2. Any player who has been deemed to target a player with a head shot is suspended for 20 games.

These proposals are drastic. But, they would not remove contact from the game. Rather, they would allow us to consistently watch the best players be the best players in the game. Not the best players in the press box.

Hockey will always be a violent game. It is impossible to create an environment where concussions will never occur. It is possible create an environment where we minimize there prevalence making the game better for everyone involved. The fans watching our favourite players and the players themselves playing the game they love.

Posted by BlackXinu on 03/15/11 at 10:15 PM ET

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Let me preface my comment by saying I am not looking to get into a debate. I just felt compelled to voice my opinion on the situation.

I have found that many people who have weighed in on the Chara/Paccoriety hit/injury seem to have an opinion, but it has been given while they are hopping up and down because the giver of the opinion has no leg to stand on. People who do not follow a sport or know the rulesof the sport are in no position to comment on it. I am referencing Air Canada, the Quebec MPs who pushed for a police enquiry and Stephen Harper, among others. If government should not be allowed in the bedrooms of the nation, why should it be allowed in the arenas?

Some of these aformetnioned people and organizations have called for one player to be punished based on the resulting injuries that are inflicted upon another player, regardless of how the injury occurred, legally or not. 

I agree with legal hits causing a lot of damage to players in the NHL. Unfortunately, this makes it very difficult to police and punish.

I do not believe that it is being discussed to great extent, but if the NHL starts punishing based on the resulting injury to a player, then does that mean that they will start punishing clean hits as well? WIllie Mitchell flattened Johnathan Toews a couple of years ago with a solid shoulder to chest bodycheck at centre ice. This left Toews with a minor concussion and caused him to miss a few games. Scott Stevens, arguably, altered the career of Eric Lindros, with a clean bodycheck. Should he have been punished for fallowing the rules? Should Olli Jokinen have been punished when his skate came up and cut Richard Zednik’s throat, almost ending Zednik’s life? While Jokinen’s skate cutting Zednik in the throat was obviously unintentional, if resulting injuries are punished, then should Jokinen not have been suspended?

Now before people start coming down on me saying that the situations I have described, intentional bodychecks and unintentional skate cuts, are completely different, stop. I agree, they are completely different. They were used to illustrate the point that it is wrong to punish a player based entirely on the resulting injuries sustained. 

For me, while the resulting injuries to Paccoriety are horrific, I do not believe that the hit was illegal. Yes, it did break the rules in the sense that it was interference and it should have been penalized as a result, but it was not boarding, it was not charging and it was not a hit to the head. When people say there was an intent to injure, I disagree. I believe there was an intent to cause pain, but not injury. Players throw bodychecks all the time and I argue that the majority of the time, they want to inflict some pain upon the other player. This is how hockey is played. If this is not the case, then what is the point of a bodycheck?

What I would much rather see punished is the intentionally illegal plays. For example, the elbows thrown by Brad Marchand, Douglas Murray and Dany Heatley over the course of this week were all intentional blows to the head and should be punished accordingly. In fact, I think they should be punished somewhat severely because, at least in the case of Marchand and Heatley, there was obvious intent to elbow a fellow player’s head.

But that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.

Posted by Etterbeekers on 03/17/11 at 02:37 PM ET

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About The Upper Canadien

The Upper Canadien is your one stop shop for all things Montreal Canadiens. Since the summer of 2010, I've been providing Habs related news, notes, and most importantly, opinions. As a blogger, I don't believe it's my job to report the news, it's my privilege to comment on it. You may disagree with what I suggest. In fact, you most likely will. But that's the great part about blogging: it spurs opinion, comment and engages all involved. I've really enjoyed all the debate and commentary from readers thus far and I encourage everyone to respond with ideas on lineups, trades, logos, sweaters, mascots, whatever. The Upper Canadien is a conversation for all hockey fanatics.

I've come to Kukla's Korner with four years of campus radio and three years of sportswriting from my time at Mount Allison University on Canada's East coast. Not only do I not have any professional journalistic training, after five years in the corporate world, I've spent much of the past two years completing an MBA. Business by day, hockey by night, I'm a Canadiens fan through and through. I hope you enjoy reading as much as I do writing.

Questions or comments? theuppercanadien@kuklaskorner.com