By Stu Hackel
The outcry against hits to the head in the NHL has increased this month, in no small measure because an elite player, Sidney Crosby, has been sidelined by concussion problems.
The chorus grew louder on Tuesday after David Shoalts in The Globe and Mail reported that Crosby was contemplating not participating in the All-Star Game or its festivities as a protest against the NHL not doing enough to deter hits to the head.
That story was denied by Crosby ("Not even close," he said) before the Penguins' game against the Red Wings on Tuesday night, and he took a softer stance than in the aftermath of the two incidents earlier this month that caused his first serious concussion. Crosby sounded critical of the league then (video), but yesterday (as quoted in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) he said, "I think it's something they're aware of. The last week or so, I think there's been a couple of suspensions for hits to the head. It's something they're trying to be active with. I think that's the right thing to do."
The Penguins' captain added (quoted in The Pittsburgh Tribune Review) that experiencing a concussion made him "gain a perspective on things. You realize how serious and how tough it is."
Reporters at the game then sought out opinions from the Red Wings and found them sympathetic to Crosby and equally concerned. "We're trying to get rid of the head shots," captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "We don't need it in our game."
Coach Mike Babcock added, "I think the NHL is really doing a lot and they're talking about it a lot, but I think when someone like Sid has an injury like that, you have an opportunity -- because it brings so much focus to it -- to make any changes you need to look after these players. They're elite players. We need them in the game. But a lot of them also have families and kids, and they want to be healthy. Hits to the head, we don't need it. We can hit each other as hard as we want; we don't have to touch each other's head."
Babcock added, "In Europe, if you touch the head, it's an automatic penalty." That's not the rule in the NHL, and the first of the hits to Crosby's head, by Washington's David Steckel, was considered accidental by the league, so no penalty ensued.
St. Louis Blues president John Davidson also spoke out on Tuesday during an interview on the TV/radio program NHL Power Play. Davidson's initial remarks were about the waiver rules that cost his team Kyle Wellwood after he had been signed to a contract. Davidson went on to discuss the injuries the Blues have suffered this season, including the one to David Perron, who has been out since November after the Sharks' Joe Thornton checked him upon emerging from the penalty box.
Davidson likens the learning curve the game is experiencing with head checks to the one it went through on obstruction calls after the lockout. There was a parade to the penalty box for two seasons, but the players eventually adjusted. He supports the league's action on head shots thus far, and noted the complex process of making rule changes (the study involved, getting the GM' approvals, going through the competition committee and the Board of Governors). And he said in a phone conversation today, "We can't be afraid of discussing how to make it better."
He also expressed his concern that some people around the game have minimized the importance of enforcing the rules on hits to the head because they do not fully comprehend the seriousness of concussions and fear a crackdown will diminish the physical character of the game, but he remarked that concussions "are a matter of concern for the whole sporting world: soccer, football, hockey. Even bull riders are wearing helmets now," he laughed.
Davidson added that players must be more responsible for their actions, recalling how head contact was not always part of the game. It was consciously avoided but became more prevalent during his playing years after many NHLers began wearing helmets. His message was clear: The game does not need the amount of head contact it has now.
Shoalts reported on Wednesday that in the aftermath of Crosby's denial, a number of hockey people are calling for stronger measures against checks to the head. He said J.P. Barry of CAA Sports, who represents the Sedin twins and Daniel Alfredsson among others, believes that the NHL should ban all blows to the head and take the notion of intent out of the equation. "The football rule eliminates any uncertainty. It sends a message to the players -- that you just can't hit anybody in the head anymore," Barry says.
Shoalts also spoke to other prominent agents -- Don Meehan, Don Baizley and Kurt Overhardt -- who believe the NHL's rule should be strengthened. Meehan and Overhardt suggested that the best way to do it would be through the NHLPA and its new executive director, Donald Fehr.
“A head shot may not be premeditated, but a player should suffer the consequences,” Meehan told Shoalts.
Coyotes assistant coach Dave King, who has seen two of his players sidelined in the last week by head shots, told Shoalts, “Every time a guy gets hit now you’re holding your breath. It’s affecting our sport. It’s paralyzing.”
King believes the NHL is “trying to do the right thing. ...What I like now is that everything goes to replay. Almost every hit is looked at by the league. You can’t escape the camera. Will it change the culture? Probably in time it will. It’s ridiculous now how many players are on the shelf.”
King added that Crosby's plight has brought greater attention to the issue. Yet as much as coaches, agents, players and even a highly regarded hockey man like John Davidson speak out, perhaps Crosby's voice will be the one that is heeded. At least that's the way Stephen Brunt of The Globe and Mail sees it. To him, Crosby has a chance to be "a charismatic leader" who can help bring about a change in the NHL's perspective on hits to the head.
"There are all kinds of people in the sport who will defend the status quo, some benefiting from great platforms, whose every utterance on nearly any subject related to hockey (and many that don’t relate at all) is treated as though it matters." Brunt wrote today. "But they’ll have a heck of a time shouting down Crosby. He has sold millions of dollars of licensed product, has had a huge hand in again making Pittsburgh a great hockey city, he is the idol of many a hockey-loving kid, and the hero of a gold-medal winning country.
"And now, he has a chance to be so much more than that."
Perhaps. Perhaps not. Stars in the past protested things they disliked about the rules -- Bobby Hull protested hockey violence, and Mario Lemieux spoke out against clutching and grabbing -- but it took more than their complaints for things to change.
We mentioned in a post yesterday the pair of Coyotes -- David Schlemko and Ed Jovanovski -- who were injured by hits to the head. After the post was published, we found video of another incident from Monday involving a shoulder to the head, this one by the Panthers' Rostislav Olesz on the Thrashers' Evander Kane. No penalty or supplementary discipline was called on a play in which Kane was racing for the puck and tied up with Dennis Wideman while skating parallel to the end boards. As the two fought, Olesz came in and drilled Kane on the chin.
It was one of those hits that we discussed last week where the NHL's curious notion of blindside applies. Kane was approached from a lateral direction by Olesz -- and was even inadvertently set up by Wideman for the hit. But Olesz was skating north-south into the play, so Rule 48 on blindside and lateral hits did not figure into it even though Kane obviously could not have seen or protected himself from Olesz's shoulder. Unlike the play in which Tom Kostopoulos broke Brad Stuart's jaw and got a six-game suspension, Kane came back later in the game.
Despite everyone's good intentions to curtail these sorts of checks, there's currently not a thing in the NHL rules that protects an unsuspecting Evander Kane from having his head rocked by a double shot of Wideman and Olesz.
Let's have a double shot of that...