The Leafs' Mike Van Ryn missed time this year after a head shot from the Canadiens' Tom Kostopoulos (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
A few weeks back I posed the question, in blog form, “What do NHL players really think about the headshot issue?”
Then it dawned on me – why don’t we ask them? Pure genius.
So I enacted my immense powers as editor-in-chief of The Hockey News to get senior copy editor Sam McCaig to coordinate a Player Poll for our Dec. 15 issue of The Hockey News magazine. Our 30 NHL team correspondents asked three players on the squad they cover the following question: Should the NHL automatically penalize any hit to the head?
For background purposes, we gave them the example of the Ontario League, which punishes any blow to the noggin, regardless of intent. Referees have the discretion over calling a minor, a major and misconduct or a match penalty.
Of the 90 respondents, 60 said no. One, Blues bruiser Cam Janssen, said “Hell no!” (View the full results HERE.)
My knee-jerk reaction was “case closed.” Why should we continue to wring our hands over a safety-in-the-workplace issue when the overwhelming majority of the workforce is accepting/in favor of the status quo?
But after allowing the results to percolate, my mindset shifted. Here’s why:
For starters, my gut tells me the headshot conundrum is similar to the visor issue in terms of its evolutionary tack. Thirty years ago, nobody wore a shield. Today, half of NHLers use them as we grow towards universal acceptance.
So the 33 percent of players who told us they favor a mandatory penalty for headshots is, in all likelihood, a significant increase over what we would have heard 10 years ago and a smaller number than we’ll see in five years time. (I have no proof this is the case; I’m just asking you to trust me on this one).
Further, of the 66 percent opposed to the mandatory penalty concept, many voiced concern about headshots nonetheless. A sizeable chunk wants to see something done; they’d just rather referees maintain discretion.
“They should look at them and be conscious of suspensions after,” said Calgary’s Jarome Iginla, “but there are certain points when a guy will duck down to get around a hit, put himself in a bad position. It can't just be black and white.”
Said Dallas’ Mark Parrish: “If it’s a hockey play, it’s a hockey play. Sometimes guys turn, sometimes they try to go underneath. It happens so fast. On the other hand, I do believe guys do need to have respect and not take advantage of a guy in a dangerous situation.”
I also took note of some of the players who voted yes. Included in that group are Patrice Bergeron, Matt Cullen, Jason Arnott and Kris Draper, guys who have suffered from post-concussion syndrome or, in Draper’s case, been the victim of a vicious headhunt. To me, their voices carry added weight because they’ve had their careers seriously impacted.
“I don’t think it would be a bad idea,” Cullen said. “There are penalties for everything else. It’s like the NFL. Sometimes, you can’t help it and you hit the QB in the head. But it’s still a penalty.”
In fairness, another concussion sufferer, Markus Naslund, voted no, but with a proviso. "If a player's head comes down at the last moment, that's a tough one, I don't know about that. But I do believe that checks delivered when an opponent is off balance or vulnerable have to come to an end. Tough, fair hits are part of the game. But intentionally taking advantage of a player when he's vulnerable, to me, that's intent to injure and has no part in the game."
The conclusion I draw is that NHL players, typically the last group of hockey people to advocate or embrace change, are slowly coming around to the notion hits to the head need to be addressed in a more meaningful way. It may not be via a mandatory penalty rule and it may not transpire this year or next, but as more voices join the choir, reform inevitably will happen.
Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every Friday.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.