We got a basketful of mail regarding last week's Four Point Plan to eliminate (or at least raise awareness about) headshots in hockey. Even Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL, weighed in on the subject.
Okay, the commissioner didn't write us directly -- and we'll get to your comments shortly-- but he did address the subject and it wasn't any kind of Texas Two-Step.
"We want to develop a standard that is clear; that the players know what to expect; that the officials know exactly what to call," Bettman told Canada's national newspaper The Globe and Mail. The challenge, he said, was to develop a standard in order to impose discipline -- without fundamentally changing the physical aspect of the game.
"What is an otherwise normal, hard physical check where the shoulder hits the head -- is there something we can do about that when a player is vulnerable and unsuspecting?" Bettman asked. "If a player loses the puck on his stick and bends down to look for it, or turns the wrong way at the boards at the last second -- what do you do about it?"
We would argue that the NHL should craft a rule that simply doesn't allow hits to the head. The consensus among hockey administrators is that it's not that simple, especially when you're dealing with a size disparity, say a matchup along the boards between the 6-9 Zdeno Chara and the 5-7 Brian Gionta.
It seems to us that if you can enforce a high-sticking rule in a situation like that, it's not outside the realm of reason that the league can enforce one regarding an elbow or shoulder as well. Still, the NHL appears to be moving slowly forward and is said to be preparing information for the general managers to consider at their upcoming meeting in March. Bettman indicated it would be a meeting where the overall importance of the issue will not be dismissed.
"We know this is important," he said. "We are not taking it lightly. But we are trying to do this in a professional, thoughtful, workmanlike way."
Bettman isn't alone. In the wake of the two junior hockey hits we wrote about last week, Hockey Canada President Bob Nicholson is said to be preparing an Open Ice Summit in August that would focus on a number of issues related to player safety. The Globe reports that Nicholson is also planning to unveil a full summit agenda at the Vancouver 2010 Games, in partnership with the International Ice Hockey Federation.
Perhaps the tide against "the let'em play" proponents, hockey's equivalent of the Flat Earth Society, is starting to turn.
In our piece last week, we outlined how hits to the head and hits from behind are impacting the game at every level and we zeroed in on two in junior hockey: Patrice Cormier's flying elbow that left his opponent convulsed and drew a season- and playoff-long suspension in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and one by Zack Kassian that warranted a 20-game ban from the Ontario Hockey League. We argued for more push from the NHL Players Association, an organized effort by ex-NHL players whose careers were ended or impacted by head shots, a Mother's Against Head Shots group that would bring pressure on the junior and youth hockey ranks, and a limited legal approach that would threaten the various leagues with lawsuits for injuries that should be outlawed by workplace safety rules.
And now for your thoughts:
There are a couple of things you could add to the list. One would be a civil suit. If this kid who got bullied by Cormier can ever prove that he's lost income because of that hit, he should sue Cormier, who's going to get a nice fat contract from the Devils. Make Cormier suffer financially for the hit. What about team ownership? If I had a dog who bit someone a second time, I'd be on the hook for a lawsuit. Based on what Cormier did in the world juniors, in the dog world, we'd say he has a history of this. So his "owners" (the Quebec Remparts & their coach) should be financially liable for his actions.
The other thing that drives me nuts is that there is no co-operation between the leagues. That goon from the Erie Otters who almost killed the Kitchener Rangers player a few months ago got picked up by the IHL, as a pro, in about three weeks. How is that possible? If he was suspended by the OHL for the season, he shouldn't be allowed to play in a pro league and get paid! Why isn't anybody making a big deal about that?-- Stephen Ash, London, Ontario
Good points, especially regarding the legal system. There is case law that backs up your argument, just like there was case law that "convinced" the NHL to hang safety nets around the rinks after the death of a young fan in Columbus who was hit in the head by a puck.
Gary Bettman, the Board of Governors, and the players association for some reason fail to see the importance of this issue to the overall game of hockey. They fail to see their responsibility not just to their own league and employees (players), but to the ever-growing number of kids across the States (we are seeing players come from Texas, California, Utah -- hockey is growing in the U.S.) and, of course, all the youngsters in Canada who play hockey like it is their religion.
Your article touched on a few valuable points. You mentioned the NHLPA, but I feel the lack of real leadership is from the league on this issue. I know it is the old cliché to say this, but does someone really have to die before this issue is addressed? If you don't think the NHL lacks leadership, just look at some suspensions it has handed out. The Islanders' Andy Sutton got two games (for a hit from behind). When Patrice Bergeron was nearly drilled (from behind), Randy Jones received two games. Where is the message? Does Mr. Campbell think this is making players think twice about plastering someone's face into the boards/glass?-- David Blanch, Dundas, Ontario
I don't believe he does, but I do believe Colin Campbell tried to do something about it on his own by handing out stiffer suspensions a few years back. I also believe the league reined him in rather quickly.
I called you bad stuff for the Erie player [Michael Liambas] who should not have been suspended [for his hit on Ben Fanelli of Kitchener]. I stand by that. However, Cormier SHOULD be suspended for the season. [View video of his hit.] Can you tell the difference? -- Jim Grajek, Buffalo, NY
Calgary Flames general manager Darryl Sutter, when asked about injuries, stated on a local radio station that head injuries weren't really a problem in that they only represent 2% of the injuries sustained. He continued to say that it was the media that was blowing this out of proportion. It might be difficult to enact change if this is the attitude of the powers that be.-- Brian Chorney, Calgary, Alberta
I heard that comment and it stems from a report the league did regarding overall injuries. To the best of my recollection, however, Sutter is leaving out the part about how even though it's a small number, the players who are injured in that fashion tend to be out of the lineup for a very long time. Blaming the media is a time-honored tradition in hockey, and Sutter tends to do it almost as often as he blames coaches for his team's shortcomings. Sutter, Mike Milbury and some of the other "part of the game" advocates should also understand this: Once a playing career is over, a bad knee can be replaced or a weak shoulder can be rehabbed. To the best of my knowledge, no one has yet devised a surgery to replace a brain or a therapy to reverse dementia. Too bad. I know a couple of ex-players who would surely benefit from that.
Jim, I agree with what you have said and there is a chance this plan could work, but I would like to make a comment here if I may about the NHL's and CHL's inability to eradicate this brutal style of hockey. The NHL is too inconsistent with its rules. It is a reactionary league that does nothing until there is a tipping point. I honestly believe that there will be no real solution provided until a player is maimed or killed on the ice. If the NHL wants to be a more accepted sport, it needs to be a lot more proactive and less reactive. Is it going to take a player like (Alex) Ovechkin or (Sidney) Crosby to be injured or killed before the NHL and the NHLPA step in and do something about this? To the NHL, I say do something now before it's too late. -- Edmund, Vancouver, B.C.
That's why I would like to see a few enlightened owners, say Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh or Ted Leonsis in Washington, be more proactive in this regard. The league has players that fans want to see and one of them, David Booth in Florida, hasn't been seen for months and likely isn't going to be able to play for Team USA in the Olympics because of a "clean" hit to the head he took from Mike Richards. Tell me how that is good for business.