Concussions in hockey have become a very serious concern for everyone in the game. There is a long list of players whose careers have ended because of recurrent concussions, and clearly there is an obligation on the part of the league, team management and the players themselves to actively address this issue.
One of the first steps in reducing the risk of head injuries is to ensure helmets are properly fitted and properly worn. In virtually every game at the pro level, I see players whose helmets fall off as the result of a solid bodycheck. Obviously, the point at which the helmet comes off is the exact moment at which it is most needed. Wearing the helmet properly should be mandated by every team and enforced by coaches and trainers. This includes wearing the helmet during warmup.
The next question is whether leagues should mandate the wearing of helmets at all times, with stringent penalties for removal of the helmet prior to an altercation. This approach will undoubtedly be considered at all levels in light of the recent tragedy in Brantford, Ont.
If protective equipment is worn properly and not discarded, the obvious question is how to eliminate concussions caused by “head shots.”
In the spring of 2004, the American League experienced an ugly on-ice incident that resulted in the lengthy suspension of Hamilton Bulldogs player Alexander Perezhogin, and the subsequent formation of an AHL Playing Standards Committee. I formed this committee to address what seemed to be a blurring in the lines of what was an acceptable standard of tough physical play as opposed to violent and dangerous conduct that disrespects our game and endangers our players.
The committee, made up of active players, coaches, officials and management, concluded that AHL players and coaches needed to commit to a higher standard of conduct and that stringent enforcement of the existing rules was one of the paths to achieving that standard.
One of the enforcement areas we focused on related to targeting the head of an opponent. Players and coaches were advised that any check in which a player was deemed to have targeted the head of an opponent would be treated as a deliberate attempt to injure and would result in a match penalty, suspension and loss of pay.
The controversy over head shots essentially has two extreme positions. The first being that body contact to the head with a shoulder is part of the game and the player should have kept his head up. The opposing view is that any contact with the head must be penalized.
We believe there is a difference between incidental contact to the head as the result of a clean bodycheck and targeting the head as the object of the hit. Over the past five years, we have not found it particularly difficult to make that determination. This approach has had a very positive effect on the game in the AHL and enhanced the safety of our players without sacrificing the physical nature of the game.
As with the institution of mandatory visors, our standards on targeting the head are meant to prevent serious injury, while protecting the integrity of the game as it was meant to be played.
It is worthwhile noting that much of what has been accomplished in dramatically improving flow and offense in the game since 2004-05 has been accomplished not by introducing dramatic new rules, but by establishing stricter standards of rule interpretation of existing rules, specifically holding, hooking, and interference.
Similarly, while no single approach will completely eliminate the risk of head injury, applying our existing disciplinary standards more stringently will have very positive results.
Dave Andrews is the American League's CEO and president, roles he has held since 1994. A goalie during his playing days, his administrative hockey career has included stops as the Edmonton Oilers’ director of AHL operations, senior consultant with SportCanada, and head coach and director of hockey operations for the Western League’s Victoria Cougars. You can read his other THN.com Blogs HERE.