Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ban head shots in the National Hockey League

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In Game 1 of the Ottawa-Montreal playoff series, the Eric Gryba hit on Lars Eller was yet another grim example of the viciousness that unnecessarily plagues the NHL.

Regardless of the ensuing debate as to whether or not Gryba's hit was legal, the results were undeniable and gruesome as Eller lay motionless on the ice, bleeding profusely from the head. Such images cannot be ignored.

A day later, Brendan Shanahan, the league's chief of player safety, dealt Gryba a two-game suspension, concluding Eller's head was the principal point of contact, and the hit was an illegal check to the head. But Shanahan also said there was no indication of malicious intent on Gryba's part, as he did not raise his elbow or launch himself towards Eller's head.

The details of such head shots and their consequences must be considered on a case-by-case basis, but this piecemeal process fails to seriously address the big issue.

It is time for the NHL to immediately implement and promote a total ban on hits to the head, on moral grounds based on the dangerous levels of vulnerability to which players are exposed. Clearly such a move would require a monumental shift in the ethos of the game. Banning hits to the head, however, would curtail the misconception the NHL is defined by violence. More importantly, it would emphasize players must respect each other as moral beings, first and foremost.

Awareness of vulnerability in the NHL is not new. In 2008 the NHL Players' Association called for a ban on hits to the head, citing player safety. The NHLPA referred to unsuspecting players who are in vulnerable positions and whose heads are intentionally and recklessly targeted.

After some horrific shoulder- and elbow-to-head hits in the 2009-10 season, league officials altered rules to minimize blindside hits to the head. Although these and other modifications are welcomed, the danger of head shots has not gone away, as confirmed by the Gryba hit. Player vulnerability in the NHL continues to be exploited and mars the game needlessly.

But what does vulnerability mean? People are vulnerable when they are open to being wounded or attacked. They are vulnerable when they lack a certain level of control, are exposed to contingencies, their individualism is threatened and they recognize their frailties and rely on the protection of others.

In a sport context, undercutting a basketball player in the air, even when there is no intent to harm, is ethically unjustifiable because the airborne player gives up a certain amount of control, is exposed to potential injury and is at the mercy of their opponents for protection.

North American football acknowledged player vulnerability when it banned spearing or head-tackling. Such tackling has been outlawed for years, and is no longer taught to youngsters.

However, not only does the NHL sit on the fence when it comes to the vulnerability of its players, the league also persists in exploiting their vulnerability.

The mere fact NHL Rule 48.1 defines an illegal check to the head acknowledges the head is a vulnerable part of the body. Yet the disclaimers in the rule about the victim of a head shot putting himself in a vulnerable position, or circumstances where a hit to the head is unavoidable (thereby "legalizing" contact with the head) are obscene. Such conditions and rationalizations, such as those who blame Gryba's hit on Eller's teammate who passed him the puck in open ice, are cynical and offensive.

NHL hockey is one of the most fast-paced, dynamic collision team sports in the world, and is difficult to officiate. But hits to the head, even unwittingly, must be completely removed from the game.

Banning head shots in the NHL would acknowledge player vulnerability, just like human vulnerability generally, requires we often must rely on the protection of others. Such a ban would make sure targeting the head is not included in the repertoire of skills players bring to the game. It would make a significant impact on the consciousness of players, altering the way they play and improving the NHL brand of hockey. And it would also have a trickle-down effect so such hits are not taught to youngsters.

Finally, a head-shot ban would raise the ethical bar needed in the NHL by showcasing players as responsible moral agents. When players respect each other in this way, frightening scenes such as Gryba's hit -- and Eller prone on the ice -- will be things of the past, and we can better enjoy our national pastime.

Danny Rosenberg and Julie Stevens are professors in the faculty of applied health sciences at Brock University. They have just published a paper Heads up: violence and the vulnerability principle in hockey revisited in the journal Sport in Society.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 9, 2013 A15

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