The NCAA can take the NHL to school when it comes to the issue of headshots

UMass' Bobby Trivigno will be suspended for the biggest game of his life, but the suspension sends a message: headshots will not be tolerated in the NCAA. And the NHL could learn something from the college game's approach.
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BUFFALO - Because college hockey actually takes the issue of headshots seriously, University of Massachusetts freshman Bobby Trivigno will be suspended for the biggest game of his life. It’s an enormous price to pay for a hit that wasn’t even penalized at the time, but if you want to send a message of zero-tolerance for hits to the head, there’s no better way than making an offender sit out a championship game.

This is what happens when you have a governing body that actually considers blows to the head to be a serious issue. There is no grey area in college hockey when it comes to hits that affect grey matter. You make contact with an opponent’s head for any reason, you get a five-minute major and you’re kicked out of the game. It happened to three players Thursday night in the Frozen Four semifinal game between UMass and Denver, which UMass won 4-3 in overtime. The stakes don’t get much bigger than that.

And that’s where this situation takes a rather inopportune turn. Video replay shows there is absolutely no doubt that Trivigno’s elbow makes contact with his opponent’s head, and it looks pretty malicious to boot. Trivigno, who scored the first UMass goal of the game, is listed as 5-foot-8 and 148 pounds and he leaves his feet with his elbow cocked, making direct contact with the head of Denver sophomore Jake Durflinger. It’s a textbook headshot.

The only problem is the same referees who kicked three other players out of the game didn’t see this one. Denver coach David Carle asked them to review the play, but because they didn’t see the offense, they left it to the discretion of Carle to use a coach’s challenge, which he chose not to do. Had the referees seen the infraction or had Carle used his challenge, Trivigno would have received a five-minute major and a game misconduct, but he would not have been suspended for the championship game.

That’s really unfortunate, but the message is pretty clear: don’t put yourself in that kind of a position by administering a blow to an opponent’s head. Period. Clearly, this has a lot to do with the fact that these kids are student-athletes – and not in the ‘student-athlete’ sense major junior hockey uses to justify not paying them a living wage – who presumably need their brains for, you know, learning and classes and exams and all that stuff.

And for the most part, college hockey gets it right. Anytime an official sees an infraction and isn’t sure what the call will be, he has a chance to review it so they get it correct right on the spot. In the game Thursday night, UMass sophomore Mitchell Chaffee, an undrafted power forward who will almost certainly garner some NHL interest, was kicked out of the game for a hit that appeared to be borderline. But if they were going to err, even in a game that had enormous implications, it was going to be on the side of caution.

And that’s the kind of leadership it takes. The International Ice Hockey Federation’s rules are very clear and major junior hockey also takes policing headshots very seriously. It’s pretty clear that the younger the players are and the further they are away from the NHL, the more seriously headshots are taken. The NHL, while coming a long way since introducing Rule 48 in 2010, still allows itself to get caught up in “the main point of contact,” or “the angle of approach” or “whether contact to the head was avoidable.”

Because a certain segment of the hockey world thinks that by taking a no-tolerance approach to headshots will instantly turn the game into the Ice Capades, a league that is largely run by former players has chosen to stay in the wishy-washy middle. And players continue to pay for it. There’s no doubt taking a no-tolerance approach would result in some controversial calls and, probably, fewer open-ice hits in the neutral zone. There might be times when a player would be kicked out of an important playoff game for a hit that might look borderline, the way it happened in Buffalo Thursday night.

But it’s really not as difficult or as complex as the NHL makes it out to be. Not when you have leadership that is actually committed to protecting the brains of those playing the game and makes their well-being the top priority.

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