Tuesday January 11th, 2011

Bloodied Red Wings defenseman Brad Stuart had to be helped off the ice after his jaw was broken by a blindside hit by Calgary's Tom Kostopoulos -- that wasn't technically a blindside hit. (Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

Welcome to Headshot Theater, where we put some of the latest hits to the head, and the comments about them, under scrutiny.

Headshots were once lots of fun. Then those killjoy scientists, doctors and do-gooders started pointing out that players could actually be seriously and permanently injured by them. So the hockey community responded -- some folks more slowly than others -- and rules were passed.

But that doesn't mean that everyone fully understands the new rules. Nor does it mean everyone, even those who understand them, appreciates the risks of brain trauma to players' health.

So we bring in Mike Milbury, who said on Hockey Night in Canada's Hot Stove segment (around the 2:30 mark)...

...that he "loved" Tom Kostopoulos's hit to the head of the Brad Stuart last Friday night, calling it "mean and nasty, but not against the rulebook..."

"Let's go to namby pamby land again," Milbury continued excitedly, "because these guys (his co-panelists Pierre LeBrun and Eric Francis) have other thoughts...Why don't we go ahead and listen to Peter, Paul and Mary records? I mean, what the hell are we doin' here, Pierre?"

Mad Mike demanded to hear a quote from a GM who thought that the Kostopoulos shot was a violation of Rule 48 on hits to the head. "It was straight ahead," Milbury claimed when the others insisted that it was a blindside or lateral hit, and precisely why Rule 48 was introduced.

Well, if you haven't seen it yet, here's the hit...

.. and here's the ruling by the NHL that suspended Kostopoulos for six games. But nowhere does it say that he violated Rule 48. Instead, NHL senior vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell is quoted as saying, "While the hit was not from the blindside, the head was the principle point of contact."

But, if the hit doesn't violate the blindside part of the rule, what about the lateral part? Certainly, while Kostopoulos was traveling north-south, he hit a player who was facing east-west.

Well, funny thing about that.

According to Gary Meagher of the NHL, who handles communication on hockey operations matters, it's not the position of the puck carrier that determines whether a hit is north-south, but the checker, so this hit didn't violate Rule 48. Kostopoulos is skating north-south, and regardless of where Stuart is facing -- even if he can't see the checker coming -- that hit is OK according to Rule 48.

So what was Kostopoulos's crime? It was that Stuart was not in possession of the puck and his head was targeted. According to Meagher, an interference major or a charging major would have been the more appropriate call. (Kostopoulos got a roughing minor.)

This key aspect of what constitutes a blindside or lateral hit in Rule 48, that it's the path the checker takes, not the position of the puck carrier, doesn't seem to be very widely known, although -- we'll give him credit -- Milbury knew that much and his confreres on the Hotstove panel did not. Nor do lots of people, including this blogger and the unnamed general manager Francis cited. More on this in a bit.

Pleading for Koustopoulos's exoneration, acting Flames GM Jay Feaster didn't have to argue against Rule 48, but took another route. In his statement on the suspension he said that, "The player was batting at the puck and Tom hit him in the chest and finished his check through him. He did not target the head, and we do not believe the head was the initial point of contact."

That statement prompted this retort from George Johnson of The Calgary Herald: "Mistake us for a tree-huggin’, recycle-advocatin’, why-can’t-we-be-friends? softy, and, fully acknowledging that everyone (us included) liberally enjoys the visceral physicality of the sport, but legal jolts to the chest area don’t fracture people’s mandibles in two places. He didn’t cave in the man’s sternum, he busted his jaw."

(Johnson's story is commendable and recommended reading, as it is unswayed by any hometown prejudice.)

Now, let's get back to the issue of what constitutes a blindside hit. When the rule was first proposed by the NHL's GMs last March, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said, “One of the criteria the GM’s had discussed centered around what they’re classifying as the triangle, or a player’s scope of vision. While hits within the triangle can be acceptable, the aim is to address head shots that are delivered outside of a player’s scope of vision.”

In discussing Matt Cooke's hit on Marc Savard, Chiarelli said it came "from outside the triangle," and we wondered at the time if that would be a neat reference for everyone to understand what was and was not permissible under the proposed new rule.

But that jargon never made its way into the discussion, and now we know why: It's not the puck carrier's field of vision that determines whether a hit is delivered from the blindside or laterally. It's the direction in which the checker is traveling. If he's approaching the puck carrier from in front, there's no problem -- according to the way Rule 48 is being interpreted.

Suddenly, Rule 48 seems a bit less terrific than it once did. The protection of the vulnerable puck carrier is a bit narrower than originally thought -- and this explains why Marc Staal's hit on Matt Stajan last November...

....was not considered a Rule 48 violation. There was contact with the head, but if you look at the low angle replays of that hit, especially the one at the one minute mark of the video, it sure looks like Staal is in front of Stajan -- and that's what counts. It's not that Stajan can't see Staal coming in his field of vision. That doesn't matter. It's that Staal was perceived by the refs and NHL hockey operations to be approaching Stajan from in front of him, making it -- just barely -- a north-south hit.

The question now is, should Rule 48 be strengthened to protect the puck carrier more? Should the standard that Chiarelli discussed last March be adopted? Because if Stuart did have the puck, and Kostopoulos didn't charge him, it would have been a perfectly legal hit even though there's no way that Stuart could have seen him coming and defended himself -- just as Stajan couldn't see Staal.

These are blindside hits in every way except for the way the NHL defines blindside hit. That's something the GMs are going to have to consider as they refine the criteria for Rule 48 going forward.

And if that makes Mike Milbury demand that we break out some Peter, Paul and Mary, well we can do that.

And that brings us to Sidney Crosby, who is currently sidelined with concussion symptoms after taking two hits to the head in successive games, the one by David Steckel of the Capitals in the Winter Classic on January 1...


...and the one by Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Pens' next game on Jan. 5:

The Penguins affirmed that the Hedman hit did the damage, that Crosby saw doctors after the Winter Classic and everything checked out. Coach Dan Bylsma said that Crosby would not have played against the Lightning if the Penguins hadn't "thought he was OK to play." Later on, Bylsma (quoted by The Pittsburgh Tribune Review) said Crosby had "neck symptoms" after the Winter Classic and "he did not have concussion symptoms after the Tampa Bay game." But Bylsma added that Crosby "was not feeling right, and per our doctor's orders, if he woke up (Thursday) morning and felt the same way, he would need to get evaluated."

Not everyone bought that explanation, including Sportsnet's John Shannon who tweeted last week, "Sources confirm that Crosby was indeed concussed on Steckel hit at WC...and played vs TB with mild concussion." And more than a few people, like Cam Cole of The Vancouver Sun, have remarked that watching HBO's "24/7" episode on the Winter Classic game made it seem (probably from the scene in the Pens' dressing room after the second period) that "Crosby saw stars."

One has to be concerned for Crosby, because this now potentially makes him more vulnerable to future concussions. Each case is different, but for a player who plays a pretty strong and instinctive game -- and absorbs lots of hits while doing so -- this has to be a troubling development.

On Saturday, Crosby had some less than kind words about the NHL's rules on hits to the head (video), conveying how upset he was that neither Steckel nor Hedman received any punishment apart from Hedman's two-minute boarding call (which should give pause to those who think the league coddles and caters to Crosby). Crosby mentioned that he didn't have the puck in either case and was blindsided in each. In his view, that fits the criteria for some form or punishment.

Crosby also said he didn't feel right on Wednesday at all, even before the Hedman hit, maintaining that he didn't have any major concussion symptoms, but compared it to "when you feel sick or a little off."

Coming after an obvious staggering blow in the previous game, that Crosby's condition didn't set off enough alarms in Pittsburgh may indicate that enough hasn't been done to educate players and teams on concussions. It's known that players sometimes don't want to come out of the lineup when they're hurt but, regardless of their importance to their teams, there are sometimes larger considerations.

Opinion is divided on the Steckel hit. Some agree with the NHL that it was accidental contact, and that Crosby had skated into Steckel's path, executing a tight turn to make the transition to defense while Steckel was trying to join the rush. Others, like Cam Cole, think that it was an "accidental (nudge, wink) shot to the button of an unsuspecting player."

Different leagues have different rules to cover this situation and the IIHF, for example, would have penalized Steckel for the play, accidental or not. Szymon Szemberg of the IIHF said in an e-mail Monday that in the IIHF rules casebook, "there is no such thing as a clean hit to the head. You hit the head, you are gone." But that's not the NHL rule.

The Hedman hit earned a boarding minor, and from the embedded video above, it doesn't look like much more than the big Tampa defender leaning into Crosby and Crosby's face being pushed up against the glass. There have certainly been far more violent and devastating boarding calls this season, but Crosby only played six more shifts afterward.

Regardless of who or what caused Crosby's concussion, Cole's words have some resonance when he writes, "The inquiring mind wonders whether the hits he incurred against Tampa were the actual cause, or the aftershocks of the previous tremor. Whether, because of the Steckel hit, he was a little slower, a little less alert, a little more vulnerable.

"Whatever the truth, it's between the Penguins and their conscience. They may have it exactly right, or terribly, cynically wrong. We're never going to find out."

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