December 16, 2019

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Opinion

Finally, NHL GMs will take steps to outlaw headshots

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/3/2010 (3568 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Flyers goalie Ray Emery looks on as Panthers forward Dvaid Booth is attended to.

MATT SLOCUM / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVES

Flyers goalie Ray Emery looks on as Panthers forward Dvaid Booth is attended to.

Today's NHL is unquestionably bigger, faster and stronger.

Small, slow and weak, however, describes the league's actions — especially compared to every other major brand of hockey — when it comes to headshots and concussions.

A step into the modern hockey era is scheduled today, when general managers will finalize a proposal for a rule change to make illegal blind-side shoulders to heads.

 

Further direction on what will be deemed a late hit and instructions to chief disciplinarian Colin Campbell to implement harsher suspensions, especially to repeat offenders, are likely.

And certainly there will be debate about what to do with predators like Colby Armstrong, Patrick Kaleta, Chris Neil, Cam Janssen, Evgeny Artyukhin, Matt Cooke and others.

To its credit, the NHL has made a thorough effort to collect data and examine the game circumstances that lead to concussions. In 1997, when the league's concussion program began, statistics soon showed a tripling of concussions.

But much of the increase was put down to a re-examination and reconsideration of past injuries. Several studies have suggested that a new "diagnostic recognition" made doctors, trainers, teams and players more aware of symptoms, leading to more accurate injury reporting.

Another key event in the state of concussions today happened in 2005. When the NHL's labour dispute ended, new rules against obstruction were put into strict practise. They had the effect of "unleashing the hounds," as it was no longer legal to impede checkers. The league has examined video evidence from periods before and after and seen dramatic increases in game speed and action.

And so goes the force of many blows to the head.

NHL concussions have numbered about 70 per season in each of the last three seasons (it's on pace for that again in 2009-10). That's a plateau after a decline from the high mark, found in the league's own data, of 128 per season earlier in the decade.

Today's frequency is about one concussion for every 650 man-games of action. That's about one concussion from every 16 NHL games.

Not all concussions come from checks to the head. Simple falls, fighting and even being hit by the puck can cause a concussion.

But until Florida's David Booth was drilled Oct. 24 in open ice and in the head by Philadelphia's Mike Richards — he received an interference major and game misconduct but was not suspended — the league seemed content that headshots and concussions were just part of the job risk.

There is risk but this event compounded by several other brutal head hits in junior hockey this season have led to a re-evaluation, even from stalwart leave-the-rules-alone NHL GMs.

"The NHL only responds at the lowest point," says defenceman Jamie Heward, the Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman whose career ended with a concussion on Jan. 1, 2009. "Look at what happened when a fan got hit in the head (with a puck) and died. Then they put nets up."

Part of that low point is about money. Important players like Booth, Chicago's Jonathan Toews and Vancouver's Willie Mitchell have all missed time after blows to the head.

But when any players miss time, others must be called upon to fill in. When teams must add players from their farm systems, their payroll expenses go up.

The NHL's labour costs — the players' share of all revenue — are fixed in the CBA, so overall the money is just spread thinner.

Both sides of the NHL equation have drawn criticism.

Last March, then-NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly addressed NHL GMs and told them 70 per cent of players wanted something done about headshots.

Kelly was completely ignored, though it's worth noting he was pushing for other things, too.

And players, though they were in a sizeable majority wanting action, still continue to do terrible things to each other.

"It's encouraging they'll start with this but what I don't understand is where the players association is," says Dr. Pat Bishop, a Canadian Standards Association expert and biomechanics researcher. "The NHLPA and NFLPA are the only two unions I'm aware of that refuse to legislate safety for their workers.

"Why aren't they demanding it? If there was something that went on at GM's plant at the assembly line that was causing guys to get hit on the head, the union would stop production and the problem would be fixed or they wouldn't go back to work."

The players are eager for a solution and haven't given up, according to former NHL goalie Glenn Healy, who was at Kelly's side as the NHLPA's director of player affairs 12 months ago.

He has since resigned amidst union turmoil, but still cares intensely about this issue.

"I don't want to see a single player leave the ice on a stretcher," says Healy. "I don't think a GM wants to see it and I don't think the 699 players watching it like it, including because they'll have to pay escrow (a payroll deduction that ensures the players earn no more or less than their share of overall NHL revenues) for five years because that guy can't play again. Everybody wants a fix and we haven't even talked about the fans.

"In these situations, every stakeholder is impacted, and negatively."

Healy said that the NHLPA pushed its agenda aggressively last March but could not agree with the NHL on what the new penalties or suspensions should be.

"Both sides couldn't find clarity they were comfortable with," he says.

But the players are regularly reminded about respect, a hot-button word in the concussion debate.

Players have seen specially prepared videos about respect, showing them how some players successfully make their hits without going for the head or trying to injure opponents.

"We've shown them how this or that veteran player didn't take advantage of an opponent," Healy says. "And players admiring passes, too, where another player had a chance to clock him and didn't. He changed his route to hit him from the side, not the head.

"We showed those clips and reminded them that this time it's you hitting him but the next time it could be him hitting you."

Healy says the fines and penalties for hitting an opponent in the head will be important.

He believes a $2,500 fine isn't going to be much of a deterrent but that players will alter their behaviour if major penalties come into play — because no player wants to hurt his team, or won't last on his team if he does it repeatedly — and if game suspensions are the consequences.

"I think players, when you start looking at game suspensions, it's a different issue," Healy says. "If you suspend (Alex) Ovechkin and it costs him a Porsche, that's a pretty significant fine.

"And if that doesn't (work), let's not stop trying to find the solution."

The bottom line ought to be easy, according to Bob Nicholson, president of Hockey Canada, which outlawed all hits to the head in 2002.

"Protect your assets," Nicholson says when asked what advice he'd give NHL GMs on head-hitting issues. "And don't put one of your future building blocks to your team in a situation where he might not be able to play again."

Nicholson says rule changes are only one facet of eliminating hits to the head and concussions, though he applauds junior-league executives for the stiff penalties they've handed out this season. He called for more awareness and education on concussions at every level of the game.

Heward said that in the end, "the onus is on the players."

"The education has to start with players to realize that it's a game, a great game, a fast game and a living for (some).

"But a lot of them have to remember they have families, wives, kids, and is it really that important that I go out and maim somebody just because I need to score that next goal?

"Is it important that the other player never plays again or is not normal for the rest of his life? There's a fine line between tough and stupid and hockey players have to find it out."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

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