And it’s time for teams and hockey fans to speak up about it.
Each spring we see the best of NHL hockey. That insane intensity level jump, the double overtime goals, Gary Bettman being booed, and some barely-average goalie doing a 1971 Ken Dryden impression. On the other hand, we have blown calls, no calls to “let the boys play” and at least three times as much Don Cherry and Pierre McGuire. (And in both categories: we have Brad Marchand. ….that guy. He rules.)
As I write this, it appears the NHL’s latest victim of headhunting season is the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Brian Dumoulin. And the perpetrator is repeat offender Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals. Of course, the play wasn’t called on the ice. It wasn’t called by the ironically named, and completely mercurial, Department of Player Safety. Dave Lozo goes over it in more detail here but in short, it probably went unpenalized because Dumoulin moved his head prior to the hit and therefore, contact was deemed to be incidental.
Dumoulin on joining morning skate: "It was another good skate out there. It was good to get a little contact in with Gonch there at the end. Hopefully I can go tonight, but we'll see what the coaches tell me." pic.twitter.com/rn270PxTqd
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) May 1, 2018
As Rule 48.1 of the NHL rulebook explicitly states: “This is hockey, it’s OK to blame the victim.” (OK, actually it outlines when hits to the head are excusable including if the receiver on the head shot “put himself in a vulnerable position.” So not far off.)
But here’s a crazy idea, why not make all hits to the head illegal?
It’s not a new idea. Dryden, the legendary goalie/lawyer/author/politician/activist, made his case for it last month in The Players’ Tribune, writing:
“We need only to penalize all hits to the head, because whether a blow is from a stick, an elbow, a shoulder or a fist, whether it’s done intentionally or accidentally, whether it’s legal or illegal, the brain doesn’t distinguish. The damage is the same.”
Some purists will whine that you’re taking hitting out of the game (which wouldn’t be true) and that you can’t blame guys for accidents (although the league already does this by penalizing players for non-intentional infractions, like errant high sticks and shooting the puck over the glass).
The NHL has the best players on the planet. They’ll learn to adjust their hitting, just like they (eventually) adjusted to slashing their opponent’s $300 sticks and not being able to clutch and grab throughout the neutral zone. Rugby bans hits above the shoulders and last I checked, that sport is still beautifully violent, so players are still gonna bang along the boards.
Hits to the head, accidental or not, are already penalized by Hockey Canada, meaning many of the young players coming into the league grew up with the rule. (This doesn’t apply at the junior or senior level, though, which is where it would matter the most.)
The NHL has a concussion problem, I don’t think anyone would disagree with that assessment. And that’s the simple reason why hits to the head need to be banned. We have a much better understanding today than we did a decade ago about the permanent damage head injuries can cause.
About 150 former players are suing the league, saying the NHL knew about the long-term effect of head injuries and did little to protect players. The case could become a class-action one, meaning 5,000 former players would automatically be enrolled in it. If the NHL loses, the financial costs could be astronomical to the league.
Of course, the human cost already is.
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