Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hits to the heads a growing concern for NHL

From the time that a kid first plays contact hockey, the term finish your check is burned into his memory. Through the learning curve that hockey provides, the hardest of open ice hits, or the crashing into the boards has become part and parcel of the game, but for some perhaps the time has come to ease up on the throttle when it comes to those jaw jarring crunches on the ice.

With a string of injuries plaguing a number of NHL teams early in this season, the most recent one to the Hurricanes Brandon Sutter (see video above) there is the beginning of a shift into the idea that each hit must be of the bone crushing variety, especially those that place the recipient into a vulnerable position and particularly those hits that involve the head.

Calling it a lack of respect in the game, Montreal Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau has become one of the fiercest critics of the growing tendency to crush the player into the boards, with little concern for the well being of the players involved or to the image of the game.

One of the key resources of the NHL is its players, the growing list of casualties points to the need for the NHL to take a more focused look at the protection it provides for its players.

Sean Gordon and Eric Duhatschek put together an in depth article for the Globe and Mail on the issue, one which outlines how the league is split on the controversy, with some suggesting that the league needs to crack down, while the traditionalists it seems would prefer for the players to police themselves and show a little more respect.

'Blows to the head shouldn't be part of hockey'
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
October 28, 2008 at 12:05 AM EDT

A recent spate of injury-causing, dubious hits is prompting calls — led by Montreal Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau — for the NHL to better protect players from head shots.

"The league has to do something," Carbonneau said after practice yesterday. "This makes no sense to me. Blows to the head shouldn't be part of hockey."

Carbonneau pointed to a hit against Habs forward Andrei Kostitsyn by Phoenix Coyotes defenceman Kurt Sauer, one on Toronto Maple Leafs forward Matt Stajan by Boston Bruins defenceman Dennis Wideman and one on Carolina Hurricanes rookie Brandon Sutter by Doug Weight of the New York Islanders as recent examples of dangerous blows levelled at players in vulnerable positions.In each case, no penalty was assessed.

But whether the hits were clean according to the rulebook isn't the issue for Carbonneau; the risk of serious injury is.

"People said [Sutter] had his head down, but he didn't have the puck," Carbonneau said. "I think there's a lack of respect out there.

"I've held a gun in my hands before, but I've never used it to shoot anyone. It's the same thing on the ice."

The angry welt near his left eye is the only outward sign of the hit that sent Kostitsyn's head pinging off the glass and ice at the Bell Centre, leaving him in a motionless heap.

After 10 days on the sidelines, Kostitsyn is expected to return to action and take his usual spot tonight alongside Alexei Kovalev and Tomas Plekanec.

After skating with his teammates yesterday, the Belarussian, a taciturn type who tends toward the monosyllabic at the best of times, said he feels "fine" and wouldn't be drawn into whether head shots of the type Sauer laid on him should be punished more severely.

Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford echoed Carbonneau's call for the league to re-examine the issue of hits to the head, saying: "There are certain players in the league who are almost like predators.

"You have guys who look for guys in vulnerable positions, who could turn away from the hit, or could finish the check in a lighter manner, or they could give it that extra. I think, for the most part, these guys are giving it the extra — and they're actually trying to hurt the player."

Rutherford knows whereof he speaks: the Hurricanes have suffered a disproportionately large number of serious head injuries in recent seasons.

"We've had five guys in three years — Erik Cole, Matt Cullen, Trevor Letowski, Dave Tanabe and now Brandon Sutter," he said. "We've talked about it at our GMs meetings and I believe people agree that we have to do something about it, but the fact of the matter is, we haven't."

Players and coaches alike point to new shoulder and elbow pads — which Rutherford likens to "cement" — the speed of the modern game and the size of the players, but Carbonneau said the problem is a cultural one.

"We're all to blame — coaches, parents, the media," he said. "We teach our kids … to finish their checks, but there's a time and a place for that. It's past time we started to look at this problem."
Though none of Weight, Wideman or Sauer is reputed to be a dirty player, Carbonneau insisted such considerations are beside the point.

"All I keep hearing in the last two weeks is that he's a good guy or he's not that type of player. So because a guy's a bad guy, he's going to get suspended, and if he's a good guy, he's not going to get suspended?" Carbonneau said.

A few moments later, across the Bell Centre ice from the Canadiens' dressing room, Hurricanes players straggled in to dress for their own skate.

They did so without Sutter, who was hammered by Weight, a former Hurricane, as he stretched to reach a puck near centre ice during last Saturday's 4-3 Carolina win. (Weight telephoned several Carolina players after the game to apologize and inquire about Sutter. Rutherford explicitly said he doesn't lump his former player in with the "predators.")

The 19-year-old Sutter, who has been diagnosed with a concussion, was scheduled to take a train back to Raleigh, N.C., yesterday. He has not yet been cleared to fly and is expected to miss several weeks of action.

"It's frustrating, certainly, it's one of those positions where maybe (Weight) could have gone after the puck instead of the body," said Carolina centre Eric Staal, who called Weight "one of my favourite NHLers." "But at the speed we're playing at, it's just pure reaction … sometimes bad things happen."

Of his young teammate, Staal said "he's a Sutter, he'll be fine."

Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour suggested it will be up to players to address the problem, not the league.

Rutherford thinks a rule-change might do the trick, but admits there is no miracle solution to stop the practice overnight.

"I don't have the answer for it, but in the NFL, they're really looking at hits to the head. I believe they actually have a penalty for a helmet-to-helmet hit," he said. "The (Ontario Hockey League) has taken a step, where they have a penalty for blows to the head now, even for what we in hockey would call a legal hit."

Bill Daly, the NHL's executive vice-president, said in an e-mail message that "the league takes very seriously its role in helping to protect players from dangerous or unnecessary blows to the head."

And while the league has a practice of assessing "significant penalties for reckless acts on the ice that puts another player's safety at risk," Daly said, there are no immediate plans to alter its rulebook.

"To this point, while we have considered and often discussed a ban on all contact that results in a blow to the head, both the General Managers as a group, and the NHL/NHLPA Competition Committee . . . have declined to take that step," Daly continued. "I'm sure the topic is one that will continue to warrant attention and debate within the game, and it is certainly possible that a further change to our rules, or our rules interpretation, may be considered again in the future."
Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said the league has been able to greatly reduce the number of hits from behind in recent seasons, and could do likewise with head shots.

"A hit from behind isn't allowed, but it's still available . . . the question should be whether or not a hit had to be delivered," he said.

Rutherford pointed out that the league has also been able to successfully crack down on hitting from behind and stick fouls - most notably hooking, slashing and high-sticking.

But what matters more than anything, Rutherford said, is acting swiftly "because we're going to have more injuries and more serious injuries. At some point, we may even have a tragedy."

The issue of blows to the head was not on last week's NHL general-managers' meetings in Chicago, but the matter had been discussed at length during previous get-togethers, Rutherford said.

In general, NHL GMs play a key role in establishing policy changes for the league. The problem, according to Rutherford, has been in trying to reach a consensus on what to do next.

But whatever is decided, he said, the players will adjust, after all, hitting to hurt was not the original intention of body checking - it was merely a means of knocking a player off the puck.
"If a player realized that a hit to the head is a two- or four-minute penalty, or potential suspension, there may be a little more caution in those hits," Rutherford said.

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