Justin Bourne saw action in the AHL and ECHL after four years in the WCHA. (Photo by Allen Picard)
The NHL's head-shot water has long since reached its boiling point and is fast approaching the overreaction phase. You know, the one where GMs evaporate the issue entirely to appease those of us clamoring for change.
And clamor, I have. I don’t want to see a star like David Booth in Steve Maddens, I want him in Grafs. I don’t need the fate of the Bruins affected by Marc Savard’s absence, especially when that absence comes at the hands of a guy whose most important stat from a game is the coarseness of the sandpaper he played like.
But at the same time, we’re talking about hockey.
If Rick Nash has his head down in the neutral zone, I want Dion Phaneuf to lay him out. And how’s he supposed to do that with a clean shoulder check and avoid Nash’s head if it’s down?
There’s a marked difference between skating straight ahead in the neutral zone and getting blasted by a defenseman in front of you, versus making a play while cutting across the offensive zone and getting blasted by a guy coming from behind you.
People love hockey cliches like “keep your head up,” but they blanket too many hits with that one phrase – when the hockey purists say “cutting across the blueline is dangerous,” it’s supposed to be because the weak side D-man can step up and blow you apart if you’re fumbling with the puck. Catching a guy on the backcheck and hitting him is fine, too, as long as the guy is skating towards the side-boards and the hit ends up straight-on.
Catching a guy on the backcheck who’s moving towards the goal, cutting across and clipping his head doesn’t fall under the “keep your head up” cliche we’ve come to know and love.
To me, whatever penalty the GMs commit to needs to include an emphasis on direction.
You can blow up anybody with the puck head on, that’s a given. It’s a part of our game. If the guy gets a concussion, we’re still allowed to chime in, all together now: “Keep your head up!”
The intent of physical contact is to A) separate a guy from the puck and B) intimidate, so as to make your opponent rush decisions and make hesitant plays. Thus, if you were to be an advocate for the devil, you’d say those things can happen from a legal shoulder-to-head hit if a guy is foolish enough to have his noggin parallel to the ice.
I’m aware of the obvious; we want to avoid certain situations. We want to avoid a guy battling for the puck against the boards getting just his head hit by an incoming defender’s shoulder. We want to avoid the sideswipe shoulder to the head, a la Mike Richards and Matt Cooke. If you break it down, we want to avoid head hits that aren’t “player is moving forwards – bam – player is moving backwards.”
Just don’t take away the raw beauty of an open-ice hit.
Earlier this year, Jonathan Toews got absolutely shoulder-to-melon destroyed on a hit by Willie Mitchell, went to the bench and said “#&$%, I had my head down.” If you watch the replay, Toews – an honest, hard-working player who knows he made a mistake – doesn’t look up-ice so much as once. Why shouldn’t he get hit when the puck comes his way?
I want to protect our players. But I want to protect our game, too.
A debate about changing a rule shouldn’t be a one-sided “protect the children” style argument, where anyone who says anything to the contrary is persecuted – if that’s what happens, we won’t get the rule right.
And coming from the devil’s advocate side, I’m confident in one thing. I know Brian Burke is arguing the same side I just laid out here. So, we can trust those guys to get it right, can’t we?
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.