Most Canadians believe that violent hits to the head are not only avoidable in hockey, they are usually premeditated, according to the results of a Canadian Press/Harris Decima survey.
The sentiment is strongest in Quebec, where 80 per cent of respondents said they felt head shots are unnecessary in the wake of Patrice Cormier's vicious elbow to an opponent's head. The Rouyn-Noranda forward, who was also Canada's captain at the world junior tournament, was suspended Monday for the remainder of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season for sending Mikael Tam into convulsions with an elbow during a game earlier this month.
It was the latest in a string of high-profile hits to the head. The highlights have been splashed over the airwaves in Canada, where only 26 per cent of those who responded to the survey believe head shots are an unavoidable part of the game.
Even among the most avid fans, 57 per cent said head shots are unnecessary and often malicious.
"I would have expected that hockey fans - those people who are the most avid hockey fans - would have been more evenly split on the issue," Harris Decima senior vice-president Doug Anderson said. "It certainly made me feel like there's really not an attitude out there that is going to pitch hard against tighter restrictions on head shots, for example."
Cormier's suspension was lauded in several corners of the National Hockey League on Monday. The ruling came days after Windsor Spitfires forward Zack Kassian was handed a 20-game suspension for a vicious hit to the head of Barrie Colts forward Matt Kennedy.
"Give me hard hockey, give me tough hockey, and people will still get hurt because that's the nature of the game," Edmonton Oilers coach Pat Quinn said Monday. "But don't give us the head-hunters. That's no good."
Televised replays of the Cormier hit have been as hard to avoid as they have been to stomach.
"It makes you sick," Leafs defenceman Garnet Exelby said. "You don't want to see guys get hurt in this sport. I'm definitely a guy who plays a physical game, and I don't want people to like playing against me. I want them to be a little uneasy when I'm out there. But at the same time, I don't think you need to play dirty."
Data for the survey was collected between Jan. 21 and Jan. 24, compiled from interviews with more than 1,000 Canadians, with a margin of error of 3.1 per cent 19 times out of 20. Cormier elbowed Tam on Jan. 17, sending the Quebec Remparts defenceman into convulsions on the ice.
"I saw that hit and, I mean, it was pretty vicious," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. "He came off the bench almost predatorally and went for the head with his elbow. I think they're sending a message and, hopefully, players in our league learn."
Anderson said the intensity of the coverage in Quebec has contributed to the stronger feelings against head shots.
"It seems to me that, with every subsequent story, the pressure seems to get heightened," Anderson said. "The way stories are written, the way the public digests information about it, is going to be more and more towards saying, 'This has got to be stopped."'
He also suggested that, if the punishment meted out in cases such as Cormier's and Kassian's work to reduce the number of head shots in the game, the level of public concern will drop alongside.
"I heard a psychiatrist in an interview a couple of weeks ago about post-traumatic stress disorder, and about how some people expose themselves to something more than once - like watching the towers fall in New York City and things like that," Anderson said. "And that can sometimes exacerbate the sense of how often this kind of thing is occurring. And when it doesn't occur in a while, it becomes less prominent in peoples' minds, less of a worry.
"And I wonder whether something like that occurs with these issues."