NHL overlooked head-checking policy
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Should have been on front-burner for league from the start of this season
Mar 06, 2007 04:30 AM
It's not surprising something got missed.
Having made of flurry of sweeping, revolutionary changes to the game in the past two years, the majority of which have vastly enhanced the sport, it's suddenly quite clear that the absence of a significant, enforceable league policy on head-checking has erupted into a glaring problem.
It truly seems bizarre, but in today's NHL you get a two-minute penalty for hooking or tripping, but no penalty for driving a hard plastic shoulder pad into the noggin of an opponent, knocking him cold.
Incredibly, they still call that a "clean" hit.
League owners and general managers have been dreadfully slow coming to grips with the issue, which has exploded into prominence over the past two weeks with two of the league's better players, Buffalo's Chris Drury and Tomas Kaberle of the Maple Leafs, concussed and sidelined after being drilled by opposition players.
"I am deeply concerned with the standard the NHL has adopted that seems to allow violent hits to the head," wrote Sabres owner Tom Golisano in an open letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman after the Drury injury.
Truthfully, this should have been a front-burner issue all season. It's just that the stars haven't been affected until now.
Earlier this season you had a brutal head check by Colby Armstrong of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Trevor Letowski of Carolina, a destructive shoulder-to-head hit laid on Montreal's Aaron Downey by Robyn Regehr of Calgary and the violent collision between Edmonton's Raffi Torres and Jason Williams of Detroit that left Williams dazed and confused.
But none of Letowski, Downey or Williams, sadly, were big enough names to create a mood for change. Ditto for Rob Dimaio, possibly drilled into retirement by Guillaume Latendresse during the pre-season.
The continued absence of proactive thinking by owners and GMs, meanwhile, has left league vice-president Colin Campbell in the untenable position of essentially trying to mete out meaningful justice where no laws exist.
Even when it came to the three-game suspension to New Jersey forward Cam Janssen for knocking out Kaberle last Friday night, Campbell said yesterday new ground was broken because it was the first time the league had suspended a player specifically for a late hit.
"It's up to all the people concerned – the owners and the players and the GMs – to get together and decide if there's something that should be done (with head checking)," said Campbell.
At least they have a helpful prototype from which to work.
The Ontario Hockey League declared war on head shots this year, instituting a policy under which any player who makes contact with the head of an opponent – even incidental shoulder-to-head contact – is handed a two-minute minor penalty.
More deliberate fouls net a five-minute major and game misconduct, and OHL vice-president Ted Baker said yesterday 186 minors and 11 majors have been handed out this season.
"It hasn't reduced hitting at all," said Baker yesterday. "Our teams have embraced it and it hasn't been an issue. We encourage hitting.
"Just not to the head."
The problem for the NHL is one of optics. It's been under unrelenting attack this season from a variety of sources – some still symbolically fighting the lockout – for what is alleged to be a reduction in rough and aggressive play in the league.
The fear in NHL circles, then, seems to be that introducing stiff rules on head checking will only create a greater perception, fair or unfair, of a league gone soft. Moreover, it would be tricky policy to outlaw head shots but then still allow two players to drop their gloves and punch each other repeatedly in the face. Bit of a conflict there.
Nothing, barring an emergency meeting of the board of governors, will change league standards on this front this season, leaving the Kaberles and Drurys of the league open to more cranium attacks by perpetrators aware the league won't act.
You can't hook the stars anymore. But for now, at least, feel free to knock 'em out.
Posted on Mar 6, 2007, 12:09 PM from IP address 220.127.116.11