David Booth of the Florida Panthers lies on the ice after a hit by Mike Richards of the Philadelphia Flyers. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
The question of the day isn’t “what’s taking the NHL so long to act on head shots?” It’s “what’s taking the players so long?”
Clearly, hockey players are aware the growing highlight reel of head shots has caused a bit of a kerfuffle. Most guys have sampled a concussion or two themselves and don’t care to try the latest flavor. So why don’t we see anyone passing up the chance to fold an opponent like a pretzel?
A major reason brings the blame back to the mindset of the guys signing the paychecks. GMs love physical players. Players know that a knockout hit can earn you a reputation. It can also earn a three-game suspension, but that’s a small price to pay.
The risk/reward ratio provides zero reason to not pummel the vulnerable player. You make some guy yard-sale his gear and your team loves it; it builds momentum. If the angle is funny and the guy gets hurt, you take your three games and collect your “edgy-player” raise come the off-season. It’s not like anyone avenges an injured teammate like they did in the ‘80s, anyway, so charge away.
The NHL could step in and give the headhunters some real punishment. The game will never get worse by punishing the idiots. Very few events suffer when you eliminate the people who pee in the pool.
But what amazes me is players seem to be waiting on the NHL to dispense justice on out-of-control headhunters. I’m sure these same skull-crushers have watched teammates struggle after concussions, needing a three-hour nap after a three-minute bike ride due to brain trauma. Why don’t they seem to care about the whole “causing brain bruising so bad that people fit to climb mountains can’t climb stairs” thing?
So it comes back to the same question: Where’s the uproar from the players? Guys can’t want it in the game.
I understand the argument about protecting yourself as a player. I’ve been one. The only cliche more overused than “keep your head up” in hockey is “keep your head down” in golf. But both are grounded in logic. In hockey, guys do need to stay out of dangerous situations, or occasionally, they deserve to get run over.
But as the aggressor, you can see when the guy you’re about to hit doesn’t know it and you need to do your best to avoid the head. That’s all we’re asking here. You can still stop a guy’s momentum and separate him from the puck without separating his brain’s communication from his body. This doesn’t need to be happening so often.
Change tends to come like Game 7 of a playoff series – “if necessary.” As team defense improved, we made goalie gear smaller to avoid soccer scores. And soon we’ll be adding “when hockey players got as big as football players, only faster and on a hard surface, we had to protect them,” because we do.
These guys play 82 games going Mach 6 on slippery concrete. Injuries are going to happen. I want to see guys blown up, too, but I want them to legally crisscross some opponent’s shoulders, not the wiring in his brain.
Damn near every buddy I have comes from hockey and I’ve yet to speak with one who thinks a “please try to avoid that human’s motherboard with your shoulder” penalty is a bad idea. The word “concussion” is so common now it goes by like “sprain,” but I can assure you, it’s not the same thing.
Is there someone speaking up in defense of head checks? Where’s the other side of this argument? By not acting on these violent hits, we’re tailoring our game for more Jarkko Ruutus and less Marian Gaboriks. Which direction do we want to go?
Someday, rules will be in place that will make it the referee’s call. And at some point, players will decide the knockout blows are not worth the risk.
But until that rule goes into effect and players open their eyes to what needs to change, I’ll steal a line I heard nearly every game on the bench – NHL, players… what’re you, blind?
Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. He will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com. Follow Justin on Twitter.