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Campbell's Cuts: Head shots need definition before denunciation

David Booth of the Florida Panthers lies on the ice after a hit by Mike Richards of the Philadelphia Flyers Nov. 24. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

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David Booth of the Florida Panthers lies on the ice after a hit by Mike Richards of the Philadelphia Flyers Nov. 24. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

Don’t you think it was quite nice of the players to give their GMs some fresh grist for the mill when it comes to the head shot debate with a couple of well-timed questionable hits over the weekend?

That’s what’s so great about things such as head shots and violence in the NHL; you never, ever have to worry about them fading from our consciousness or ceasing to become a hot-button issue because we’re always only one ugly incident away from them becoming relevant again.

And we all know how often those happen. It seems almost every other week we’re hearing people clucking their tongues and saying, “You never want to see a player taken off on a stretcher” while he’s being taken off on a stretcher.

So it was this past weekend with Chris Neil of the Ottawa Senators and Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins once again putting the head shot debate front and center in advance of the GM meetings, which open in Boca Raton, Fla., Monday.

“We don’t need any more of them to realize this is a problem that needs to be addressed,” said Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, who had seen the Neil hit on John Mitchell, but not the Cooke hit on Marc Savard when contacted early Sunday night.

It will be interesting to see what the GMs do about this issue, since it appears absolutely nothing has changed with respect to the debate over the past couple of months. After both hits, we were treated to the weary and predictable, “I was only finishing my check,” from both offenders and on the Neil hit, at least, it seemed there were as many people blaming Mitchell for not being aware Neil was on the ice as those who were accusing Neil of headhunting. The scorn for Cooke’s despicable hit on Savard was much more one-sided, but to these eyes there was nothing different from that hit than the one Mike Richards placed on David Booth that was judged to be a perfectly clean and legal hit by many in the hockey community.

That’s the problem with this debate and it’s also the crux of why I’m expecting so little from the GMs and the league on this issue. It’s safe to say nothing divides the hockey world more than the question of head shots. One man’s blatant and vicious blow to the head is another’s bona fide hockey hit. And many in the hockey establishment just can’t seem to get beyond the fear that by doing anything to tone down on-ice collisions would turn hockey into 4-on-4 ringette.

Even the International Ice Hockey Federation can’t seem to get its act together on this issue, despite the fact it could not have been more forceful on the issue prior to the Olympics. Rene Fasel, the president of the IIHF, can be seen on the organization’s website personally saying, “There is no such thing as a clean hit to the head in international ice hockey. The IIHF’s approach to this rule is a no-brainer.”

Couldn’t be more black-and-white, could it? But it certainly didn’t look that way during the Olympics when Alex Ovechkin drilled his shoulder into Jaromir Jagr’s head in the neutral zone. Not only was there no penalty on the play, it directly led to a Russian goal that turned the tide of the game and effectively rendered Jagr useless for the rest of the game and the tournament.

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By most hockey people’s standards, the Ovechkin hit represents everything that makes the game exciting and should be applauded, which it was. But by the strict definition set forth by the IIHF, it was a head shot, plain and simple. It was not penalized, it was not reviewed and it was never considered an issue at the tournament.

All of which makes the head shot debate such a red herring. There is talk the GMs will recommend to the board of governors that a head shot to an unsuspecting and vulnerable player be punished with supplementary discipline, but how do you judge a player to be unsuspecting and vulnerable? As Rutherford points out, players have learned to turn their backs to the play in order to draw a penalty for hitting from behind.

“Every time we put something in, the players are so smart that they’re able to adapt to it.” Rutherford said.

The best proposal I’ve heard so far comes from Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland, who has always been known to be one to cut to the chase. His proposal would have made the Richards hit a suspendable offense. In his rule, if a player is looking in one direction and he is hit directly in the head from a player on the blindside, the offending player would receive an automatic two-minute penalty, or a major and a game misconduct at the referee’s discretion, and would be automatically subject to supplemental discipline with heavy suspensions that increase for subsequent offenses.

“We’re talking about three or four hits a year,” Holland said.

It’s not perfect and I don’t think it goes far enough, but it’s probably about as close to action as we’re going to see on this front from GMs. Even then, I’m not convinced there will be any consensus on the issue coming out of these meetings. The more we see of this issue, the more I’m convinced the NHL is either going to have to leave the rule alone and deal with having their most valuable assets regularly taken off on a stretcher or they’ll have to place an outright ban on head shots the way the Ontario League has done.

“All I can say is something needs to be done to stop these hits,” Rutherford said. “This is a tough one, but the alternative is not to do anything about it.”

We’ve heard this kind of talk before, but that doesn’t mean this group is not above taking the path of least resistance. The hockey world waits, but we’re not getting our hopes up.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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