Wednesday November 9th, 2011

OHL Commissioner David Branch has become the face of his league's zero tolerance policy on headshots. (Photo by Leon T Switzer/ Icon SMI)

By Stu Hackel

Another stiff suspension for a headshot in the Ontario Hockey League has been handed down and, as in all consequential rulings anywhere in the game, there are aftershocks for the NHL to consider.

The OHL, the NHL's top source of junior players, has suspended Tom Kuhnhackl, a Penguins draft pick, of the Niagara IceDogs 20 games for his hit last Friday that was delivered to the head of Kitchener Rangers defenseman Ryan Murphy, a Hurricanes pick who nearly made the NHL club in training camp. The OHL has been a leader in player safety during the last five years, especially hits to the head, and its Board of Governors last summer instructed the league to step up its punishment of players for dangerous play. On this hit, the OHL acted strongly.

I got into a Twitter exchange overnight with a reader who has been critical of my advocacy of strong rules against hits to the head and my support for the NHL's expansion of Rule 48 this season. He wanted to know my reaction to Kuhnhackl's ban and I said it was justified. The reader believed it wasn't, that Murphy should have had his head up, that Kuhnhackl had not been a prior offender, and the OHL came down too hard on him because Murphy's status as a top prospect was the real reason for the stiff suspension. It was a good exchange and worth exploring here in more than 14o characters.

Kuhnhackl's was a rough hit, the type that not very long ago would have been celebrated throughout hockey. Those hits once carried with them the message that a puckcarrier best not make himself vulnerable, the onus was on him to avoid being checked and he should keep his head up and pay attention to the opposing players around him. And if his head was down and a checker decided to remind him to keep it up by putting a shoulder to his jaw, well, that was just too bad.

What we now know of concussions and brain trauma has changed that thinking. Leagues everywhere have shifted the burden on these hits, in varying degrees, by requiring the checker to avoid the puckcarrier's head. For many leagues and in international play -- although not the NHL -- the standard is "contact" rather than "targeting." The OHL is one of the "zero-tolerance" leagues.

Anyway, here's Kuhnhackl's hit on Murphy:

Kuhnhackl received a charging major and game misconduct. Murphy suffered a concussion and is out at least a week. You can draw your own conclusions as to whether Kuhnhackl intended to target Murphy's head or not, but that was not part of the OHL's decision.

Let's digress for a bit: I asked OHL Commissioner David Branch a while back why his league adopted a zero tolerance policy on head contact. He explained that even though the OHL is the NHL's top developmental source, "many players do not go on to professional hockey careers and pursue their academic careers and the like, or whatever the case may be. So I think we have to be sure we try and blend the needs and requirements for all our players as best as possible. One of our mission statements is we wish to present our game in such a way that players can develop their skills to proceed and pursue their hockey goals without fear of needless injury, understanding that hockey is a contact game and it’s one of the elements that I think most of us agree makes it such a great game.

"When we introduced the headshot rule, it was really for our needs as we saw them. It was done in such a way that we thought it would not in any way take away the physical nature of the game but work towards bringing back one element of that word ‘respect.’ We feel that the respect factor in our league was becoming diminished over time for any number of reasons. So we found we had to look at different ways and means to, shall we say, legislate respect, as best we can, back into the game."

At the time we spoke, the NHL had no rules against checks to the head, and Branch added, "I think it’s demeaning to our game that a player should be knocked unconscious, whether it’s by a legal or illegal hit -- especially by a legal hit under its current definition -- and it’s acceptable. I don’t think it should be considered acceptable."

It no longer is.

Apart from his concern for players' health and the game's image, Branch also represents his owners and those of the other two Canadian major junior leagues in his second role as head of the CHL. Major junior hockey competes against U.S. colleges for players, and with tough NCAA rules on head contact, the last thing he and major junior hockey would want would be having to go up against NCAA recruiters visiting families of young players and telling them, "Your son can get a great education at our school, play hockey and you don't have to worry about him getting his brain mashed like he will in junior."

So even though the sport is the same, the OHL has different concerns than the NHL and has to design its disciplinary practices accordingly.

Those differences mean the OHL must be vigilant against head contact, and a big reason their owners wanted tougher discipline on it. There have already been eight suspensions of 10 games or more in the OHL this season. On the league website, all the offending hits and the rulings have been posted on the video page.

When you look at these hits, it seems that every one would have earned some sort of action in the NHL as well. They might have been called boarding or charging or interference, and they may or may not have earned NHL suspensions (even in the current environment, you can't always be certain). However, they would all violate an NHL rule. The fact is, head contact seems to trump all else in OHL infractions and the way the league applies its "zero-tolerance" may not be the boogeyman that some NHL thinkers believe it to be. That's worth a bit more examination down the road.

Back to Kuhnhackl's ban. It is the longest of all so far. Why? Branch explained on Prime Time Sports over the Fan 590 in Toronto Wednesday evening (audio) that this hit compared to the others was more problematic. Kuhnhackl was skating faster, he traveled a longer distance to deliver the blow and it resulted in an injury. "All those factors were somewhat unique to this situation when compared to some of the 10 game suspension we had handed out," Branch said. "So, thus, we were of the opinion we had to take a stronger stand, stronger position, and addressed it accordingly."

There was no mention that Murphy's top prospect status had anything to do with it, but considering it was the first of the suspensions that resulted in a concussion, the longer ban seems, by OHL standards, valid on its own.

As for Kuhnhackl not having a record of past offenses, Branch mentioned that he was unlike  Michael Liambas of the Erie Otters, who delivered an eerily similar hit two years ago to Kitchener's Ben Fanelli that resulted in a fractured skull.

Liambas had a history of crossing the line and Branch suspended him for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs. Essentially, he kicked Liambas out of the league. So, Kuhnhackl's clean record was a factor in the ban not being more severe than 20 games.

(You can read more on the Liambas ruling and the wild reaction to it in a post I wrote two years ago, with some commentors calling it "overboard" and "ridiculous." Branch and the OHL never wilted. )

Whether there is an appetite in the NHL for these sorts of stiff suspensions is debatable. Fans and media commentators were quite supportive of Brendan Shanahan's tough stances during the preseason, as were most GMs, but not everyone shared that opinion. Still, we mentioned in a pair of posts last week (here and here) that there has been a backing off on supplementary discipline since the regular season began. Some of it is because the players have gotten the message, especially on hits to the head, but there's a nagging suspicion that boarding penalties are not being handled with the same resolve. The league has not suspended a player for boarding since the regular season began, preferring fines instead. And the hits keep happening. In fact, the Kings Ethan Moreau was fined $2,500 for boarding in a game on Nov. 5 against the Penguins, and the very next game, Nov. 7 against the  Sharks, took another boarding penalty. No lesson learned there.

The OHL, however, seems not to have wavered in its discipline crackdown. And yet, as co-host John Shannon pointed out to Branch during his Prime Time Sports interview, he's suspended all these players for double-digit games but it has not yet been an effective deterrent.

"That's a fair comment, no question," Branch replied. "And I for one share the opinion that discipline is not the sole answer to our collective concerns on the blows to the head." Education is also part of it, he said, and the OHL produced a concussion video that all players much watch. The videos of the infractions on the league's website are also part of this effort. "We've seen some progress, but we're not where we wish to be, for sure," Branch added.

Many NHL observers, including myself, have felt that tough suspensions are best way to get something bad out of the game. It worked before with stick swinging, bench clearing brawls and other things the NHL wanted gone. But perhaps because the nature of checking is so integral to the sport and so ingrained in players, and because physical play is prized by coaches and desired by fans, getting just a few kinds of dangerous hits out, particularly to the head and boarding, may require more than fines and long suspensions.

That's why it was very heartening to learn Brendan Shanahan is not only standing before cameras to explain his rulings, but also standing in front of players face to face to voice the league's concerns and taking their questions. Whatever differences may separate the NHL's approach from the OHL's, you still have to conclude that the NHL's Player Safety Department is sincere about its job, and the league is doing more than ever to get better player understanding on this issue.

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