Are previously concussed players playoff headshot targets?

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By Stu Hackel

Here you go, hockey fans. Four wonderful examples -- all since Sunday -- of how good a job the NHL has done cracking down on hits to the head. It's a good thing, too. Imagine what things might look like without the league's increased vigilance.

Oh, wait. The crackdown won't come until next season, after the NHL and its general managers have a good hard think about how the rules should change. So for now, the dinosaurs still roam, the rationalizations still fly and the league is apparently unprepared, if not unwilling, to back up its intentions with any meaningful action.

Tampa Bay's Steve Downie got a one-game ban today for his flying headshot into Pittsburgh's Ben Lovejoy last night (the second video above), as if one game is any sort of serious punishment for someone who has been suspended as often as Downie -- even though it's a playoff game and those suspensions are supposedly worth more, like one dog year is supposedly seven people years.

And the Penguins' Chris Kunitz also got one game for his drive-by elbow of the Lightning's Simon Gagne last night, which was every bit as egregious as the one his teammate Matt Cooke threw to earn a lengthy suspension he's still serving.

These collected videos above demonstrate a few things, one being that when the NHL does not use its authority to severely punish those who target the heads of opponents, the targeting spreads. The standard is set, the players know they can get away with it, or if they are punished, the punishment isn't strong enough to serve as a deterrent to others.

All the talk in March at the GM's meetings (here and here) about how concerned the league is about concussions and player safety rings rather hollow now, especially if, once the playoffs start and teams ratchet up their intensity, the NHL does not do likewise.

And that's the second thing these videos show. As we've seen for decades, the likelihood of a player getting a meaningful suspension or suspended at all during the postseason lessens, ostensibly because the games matter so much more. The league does not want to deprive a team of a player's services any more than it has to. And the players and teams know that.

So it's time to ask this question: When teams draw up their game plans, looking for weak links in the opposition, is one of those weaknesses "Who on the other team has had a concussion before?"

In three of the four videos above, the victim is not just an important player for their team, but one who has a history of concussion problems. Players talk all the time about not wanting to see an opponent hurt, not wanting to end someone's career. But if previously concussed players are being targeted with hits to the head, what does that indicate?

Let's go to the top video, in which Raffi Torres -- fresh off his suspension for his late-season hit on Jordan Eberle -- delivered a monster hit in his first game back Sunday to Chicago's Brent Seabrook. While some observers loved it, it also seemed to many others like a Rule 48 call, a blindside hit (well, not Torres who didn't even think he deserved the interference minor he was assessed). But TSN's Bob McKenzie learned afterward from league officials that when the NHL GM's passed their proposal for what eventually became Rule 48, they carved out a "hitting zone" below the goal line where Rule 48 didn't apply.

Well, raise your hand if you ever heard about this "hitting zone" any time in the past year. Don't think too many will be raised -- not even among the GM's themselves as McKenzie's TSN colleague Darren Dreger found out. Dreger phoned a bunch of GMs to ask what they thought of the Torres hit and in the Monday "Dreger Report" we learned that eight of the nine who responded thought Torres should be suspended. Guess they forgot about this "hitting zone," too.

"You could already hear the alibi being composed late Sunday evening, when the National Hockey League began leaking hints that a forensic examination of Rule 48 appeared to have found a loophole just the right size for Raffi Torres’s bowling-ball body to slip through," wrote Cam Cole in The Vancouver Sun on Monday. "Up until then, it looked pretty clear-cut: the Vancouver Canucks’ serial charger — oops, make that 'outstanding finisher of checks' — was headed for another suspension, after clocking Chicago defenceman Brent Seabrook in Game 3 of their playoff series at the United Center....

"Do what Torres did to Seabrook on any other part of the ice surface — blindside him, when he doesn’t have the puck, hit him in the head with the kind of force that would normally fell a horse — and you’re gone. Five and a game, and supplemental discipline to follow. But do it behind the net, where all collisions are deemed to be 'north-south' hits and no player is permitted either a blind side or protection from assault on the brain, and bingo! You’re out of jail free."

Turns out Seabrook, Chicago's second best defenseman who has a history of concussions, will miss tonight's Game 4 of the Canucks-Blackhawks series with what the Hawks call, in the quaint lexicon of the NHL, an "upper body injury."

So it's OK to target a guy's head from the blindside on some parts of the ice, but not others. The more we learn about Rule 48, greeted last fall by the NHL's self-congratulations for taking a revolutionary step, the less impressed we are.

At first, the rule was explained as outlawing any hit to the head that wasn't delivered head-on, and Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli spoke of the triangle of a player's field of vision as the determining factor of what constituted a blindside hit. Then we learned that had somehow changed and blindside referred not to the puck carrier but the checker -- in other words if the checker was skating in a north-south direction on the ice it was permissible for him to blindside a puck carrier who was skating east-west. Now we learn -- 13 months after the fact -- that almost anything goes behind the net.

How wonderful. Let's get blindside hits out of the game -- except those we don't want to get rid of. What nonsense. So when we hear Gary Bettman tell us at the Florida GM's meetings last month (video) about all the strong initiatives the league is proposing on safety and concussions --the "stricter, more aggressive" standards on player behavior, including hits and boarding calls below the goal line -- why should we consider any of it seriously? There's not a really good track record here.

So Torres gets away with his hit on Seabrook and -- what do you know? -- 24 hours later, Downie delivers almost the exact same hit to Lovejoy. Yes, Downie left his feet and so he would have gotten a charging minor had it not gotten wiped out by a goal. That wasn't part of Torres' hit on Seabrook, but everything else is pretty similar. Giving Torres the suspension he deserved might have discouraged Downie from making his hit (although with Downie, you can't be sure). But since it took place in "the hitting zone," we don't have to be concerned with any of that.

We mentioned earlier that the league should be tougher, not more lenient, during the playoffs. Everyone knows that if you can get an important player out of the lineup during a seven-game series, it only helps your team's chances, but what we're seeing here is not "finishing your check" but a deliberate attempt to injure.

So we should be concerned about New York's Marc Staal's gratuitous elbow to the head of Washington's Mike Green in the Capitals-Rangers game Sunday afternoon (the third video on top). Green is an important player for Washington, and coming off a concussion that kept him out of the lineup for all but one full game since early February. If the NHL isn't going to enforce its own rules, what else is there to prevent an opponent from targeting Green's head and concussing him again? By now, it is well known that each subsequent hit to the head is more likely to result in a concussion and that multiple concussions greatly increase the chance of permanent brain damage.

But there was no call there and one night later, Kunitz delivered a flying elbow to Gagne in the slot. Gagne, too, is a multiple concussion victim and we're not saying he or Seabrook or Green deserve any special treatment. They dress for the game and they assume the risks of playing a dangerous sport. We're fine with that and sure they are too. But such an obvious attempt at head contact has a pretty clear implication when the targeted player has the sort of histories Seabrook, Green and Gagne do.

No one is pretending these are easy problems to solve. But with "hitting zones" and lightweight playoff suspensions, the NHL shouldn't pretend they are solving them either.