Hits to the Head - A No-Brainer

Puck Daddy has a new post arguing against automatic penalties for certain hits to the head. This comes off the news that the GMs have no plans to add stricter rules on the subject of hits to the head.  

Wyshynski's post, filled with unnecessary (and typical) attempts to mock anyone who argues that this issue should be addressed with concrete action, wouldn't even be worth the effort of a reply normally.  But it highlights, so perfectly, the two arguments made by people in favor of not adding penalties for hits to the head, and how without merit they both are.

Argument No. 1:  "Referees and the League are dumb and cannot be trusted to make discretionary calls."

Wyshynski quotes from THN's Ken Campbell (who is quoting Paul Kelly, NHLPA Director) in saying

    "I think that's the fundamental misunderstanding," Kelly said. "Some of them (the GMs) genuinely believe we're trying to take the physical quality out of the game and we're not. Honestly, we're trying to keep the right balance by keeping physicality in the game and protecting players. I don't think it's enough to just say, 'Keep your head up.' You're blaming the victim in that situation."

    Kelly used the hit from the Western Conference final by Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall(notes) on Martin Havlat(notes) of the Chicago Blackhawks as a perfect example. According to the NHL's rules, it's a perfectly legal hit, but that doesn't mean it should be. "Kronwall could have accomplished the same thing by driving his shoulder or hip into the body of Havlat," Kelly said. "He doesn't have to go at his head. And the supplementary discipline system simply has proven that it's not sufficient to deter this conduct."

and then says

We can agree, without hesitation, with Kelly's assertion that the NHL's Wheel of Discipline has fallen off its axel. But one of the reasons it's been so ineffective is due to the subjective nature of most supplemental discipline. Evgeni Malkin gets an instigator at the end of Game 2, earns a suspension and then has it rescinded due to some random collection of criteria. The same circus will come to town with a head-shot rule.

So, Wyshynski hates when clear guideliness for penalties are not applied, and somehow concludes that the NHL and the refs, therefore, should not have any guidelines for penalties?

Look again at what Paul Kelly and the NHPLA called for (again, quoting directly from Wyshynski's own quotes here):

The rule would be directed at players who deliver blind-side hits to other players, who are in a vulnerable position. If there is no injury on the hit, the referee could issue a two-minute minor penalty or, if there is an injury, a five-minute major. If there is a deliberate attempt to injure someone in the referee's opinion, he could give the player a match penalty which would subject him to further discipline from the league.

Seems pretty clear to me as to what would be legal and what would not.  The only "discretion" would be to call a match penalty.  And Wyshynski doesn't even disagree with the NHLPA's concept, saying:

Again, we can all agree that intentional hits to the head in a concussion-filled sport should be heavily penalized.

Wyshynski is equating "deliverate intent to injure" (NHPLA's words) with "intentional" (Wyshynski's words), which is ok with me.  So he admits there's a problem that must be addressed.  But then he goes on to throw his hands up in frustration at the inability of the refs to make a distinction between "intentional" and "reckless"

But what is "intentional," and what is simply "reckless"? And can NHL referees that can't even count how many players belong on the ice in a Stanley Cup Finals game be trusted with that instant psychoanalysis in a sport played with such velocity? On an open ice hit that involves the head, there's always intent -- in the sense that the defender intended to take a guy out and intended to do so with a check. If that leads to an injury, is that intent to injure.


Jokes aside Wyshkinki is effectively saying that everytime a hockey player hits someone - he's aiming to injure someone.  That's news to me, and I bet its news to a lot of hockey players.  But to be serious, there is no logical reason to equate "intending to check" with "intending to injure someone by hitting them in the head with a check". 

I'm a player intending to throw a check in open ice, why shouldn't it incumbent upon me to think about the position of the guy I'm hitting?  I'm forced to do it when throwing a check on a player near the boards (especially if that player is in a "vulnerable position").  Why can't I also be expected to think about players in "vulnerable positions" in open ice?

But to get back to the key problem with this argument about the refs and the league - Wyshinski ignores a key point - a failure in referee judgment and/or league discipline doesn't mean that you give up on making and enforcing rules.  In hockey, where there is such "velocity" and such action, you're going to have calls made that are wrong.  But the proper action when wrong calls are made is to correct them.  And you do this in two ways: First, the NHL educates the refs, the teams, and the players about what a correct call and an incorrect call is.  And second, when incorrect calls are made, the refs are punished.  This is a comment for another time, but a combination of limited on-ice video replay, and supplemental discipline for referrees is long overdue in the NHL.

Simply, it makes no sense to try and address serious player safety issues because of incompetence in league and its officiating.  You don't improve things by ignoring problems - you improve things by addressing problems.

Argument No. 2:  Oh No, Here Come the Figure-Skaters!


Don't buy the players' line. It's a sport whose fundamental system and game-play leads to injury. This is an attempt to make the legal illegal, and it's preposterous to believe it won't affect the fundamentals of the Game at the NHL level.

In short, this is the Politics of Fear:  Try to scare people into thinking that penalzing hits to the head will somehow lead to no body contact whatsoever. Its overblown and not supported by any concrete evidence. There is simply no proof that the game would be effected in any way meanginful whatsoever if you added the penalties the NHLPA wants.

First, no one is trying to remove contract that leads to injury.  If you throw a shoulder into a guy's chest, that guy may still get a concussion.  No one is arguing against that.  All the NHLPA is asking for here is to protect against hits to the head.  And while the impact of these hits is tremendous (for the players on the receiving end obviously), the frequency of these hits is minor.  Obviously it would be difficult to go through all the game tapes to find out how many times a player was hit in the head during a checl - but common sense suggests it is not often.  We've had the Kronwall hit on Havlat others recently? Sure there were a Even Wyshsinki has to go back to his favorite hit of the season - Doug Weight's hit on Brandon Sutter - from October!!  Off the top of my head, I can only remember Kurt Sauer's on Andrei Kostitsyn (also back in October), Denis Gauthier hitting Josh Georges from January, a hit by Cam Jannsen in February, and one by Brendan Witt in February. That's 5 total - and even it was 3 times as many - 15 over the course of a season is not a significant number.

Oh but I must be wrong, because luminaries like Brian Burke are sure of it.

"In the leagues where they've put in an automatic penalty, I think it's dramatically reduced hitting. We have no desire to reduce the amount of contact that takes place on our ice surface."

Really? Where's the proof of that? There is none, at least none that I've ever seen.  But facts are not what's important to Burke and Wyshinski, etc.  What's important is the 2nd sentence Burke said:

We have no desire to reduce the amount of contact that takes place on our ice surface.

Somehow, if you add penalties for hits to the head, hits which happen infrequently at best, you're going to turn hockey into a sport where no one touches anyone.  There is simply no rational way to justify this link. There were 53 hits in Game 3 of the finals.  67 in Game 2.  You gullible fans are supposed to believe that if someone was afraid of a penalty, those stats would go down significantly?

Of course they wouldn't. And the reason why they wouldn't is because the large majority of players are already mindful of how to throw a hit without taking a guys head off.  Adding a penalty (and potential supplemental discipline) to players who cross that line from "mindful" to "mindless" and reckless, will not likely have any meaningful impact on the game. The "Politics of Fear" argument made by Wyshinski and Burke is not in the least bit convincing.

This item was created by a member of this blog's community and is not necessarily endorsed by From The Rink.

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