The myth of the "head up" headshot defense

Tuesday January 25th, 2011

Though players are taught to protect themselves from onrushing checkers by keeping their heads up, it's not always possible when they're looking for the puck. (Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

By Stu Hackel

Marc Savard has another concussion and Sidney Crosby will not be taking part in this weekend's All-Star festivities as he continues to recover from the one he suffered. These news items may or may not further ratchet up the discussion on how the NHL deals with hits to the head, although it's hard to imagine the debate being more polarizing than it is at the moment.

It raged on last weekend between periods of NBC's regular season debut telecast...

[vodpod id=Video.5409495&w=425&h=350&fv=launch%3D41221598%26amp%3Bwidth%3D420%26amp%3Bheight%3D245] Mike Milbury, after raising a good point about the damage caused by huge shoulder pads, tried to make jokes about this serious issue and ended up slinging mud, generating more heat than light, and boorishly likening Pierre McGuire to a "soccer mom" for proposing a different approach to make the game safer. NBC does itself and its partner, the NHL, few favors with Milbury's intolerant act.

The news on Savard came after doctors determined that this hit on Saturday by former Bruin Matt Hunwick in Denver...

...had done the damage -- along with the Pepsi Center's seamless glass, which shouldn't be there. There are now serious concerns that continuing his career will put the quality of Savard's life at risk and his playing days may be over.

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It's been often stated during the past few years that suffering a concussion can make one more vulnerable to more, and the process of recovery cannot be rushed. It's possible that Savard's decision to return prematurely for last April's playoffs after his severe concussion in March may have made have contributed to this latest injury, but regardless, Sidney Crosby certainly won't be rushing back, as he told the media on Monday.

The blindside hit on Savard by Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke (video), preceded by the one by Mike Richards of the Flyers on the Panthers' David Booth (video) a few months earlier, provided the impetus for NHL GM's to propose the rule last March that ultimately became Rule 48 on blindside and lateral hits to the head. It was the first time in NHL history that the onus was placed on the checker and not the puck carrier. Yet, as we discovered a couple of weeks ago, the onus in Rule 48 is more narrowly defined than most people were led to believe.

Even today, in almost every instance of contact to an unsuspecting player's head, the cry goes out, from those who are reluctant to see stronger rules, that the victim didn't have his head up and thus the hit was justified. Milbury's words during the NBC segment typify that mindset. He accuses McGuire of wanting to "baby-proof" the NHL. "If you go down and bend over to get a puck," Milbury says, starting to fume, "I gotta be responsible for watching out for what I do, that means I gotta take the hit, punishment-wise, when you're the guy making the mistake. I don't buy it....You gotta have some men who play the game!"

Milbury's rant has its roots in the old hockey mantra, "Keep your head up." It's as old as the sport itself, and one of the first things a young player is taught. You learn how to stickhandle without looking down at the puck. If you keep your head up, you can avoid the onrushing defender who wants to separate you from the puck by putting his body into you, which the rules allow. That's the proper way to play the game and what the game's culture encourages.

I was reminded of that this past weekend while reading the new biography Eddie Shore and That Old Time Hockey, by C. Michael Hiam (McClelland and Stewart, 336 pages -- of an essential Hall of Fame character that, nevertheless, doesn't quite capture the wild and colorful intensity and insanity of Shore's career, life and times). Hiam relates the story often told by the Canadiens' brilliant passer and stickhandler Johnny "Black Cat" Gagnon about his being leveled by Shore in 1930, during the first game they played against each other.

"He knocked me cold," Gagnon said, dutifully quoted by Hiam. "When I got up, he said, 'Kid, next time you'll keep your head up.'

"That," Gagnon reflected, "turned out to be good advice."

And when a player is carrying the puck at the NHL level, keeping his head up is the smart thing to do. Not much changed in that regard over the years, and seven decades later, in 2000, Eric Lindros suffered two concussions in a brief span, first by a blow from Hal Gill ....

...and then by one from Scott Stevens...

...and the fault was laid at Lindros's skates because he didn't keep his head up. He had, observers said, developed the bad habit of fearlessly skating with his head down in minor junior hockey because he was so much bigger than is opponents he had no fear of being checked by them.

But there's one thing about the hits on Lindros that differ greatly from the one Tom Kostopoulos put on Brad Stuart (video) that Milbury thinks should not have resulted in a suspension. Lindros was carrying the puck, the way Johnny Gagnon was carrying it when Shore laid him out and was levelled the way so many NHLers have been clocked while stickhandling with their heads down.

The intention of the unwritten rule is that players should keep their heads up ... but that's for when they are in possession of the puck. Keeping your head up is not a catch-all that permits a checker to lay out anyone whose head is down just because the puck is in their neighborhood.

Stuart was looking for the puck. He didn't have possession of it. But somehow, over time, the demand that keeping one's head up to watch for hits to the head has been broadened to include times when the victim is only in the vicinity of the puck. Brandon Sutter, for example, who was rocked by Doug Weight in a well-known incident early last season...

....had lost possession and was looking for the puck. There was no penalty and no supplementary discipline.

One of the darker chapters in NHL history, which culminated in Todd Bertuzzi jumping Steve Moore from behind and breaking his neck, was payback for Moore's hit on Markus Naslund weeks earlier. The original hit by Moore ...

....caught Naslund with his head down while looking for the puck. There was no penalty and no supplementary discipline.

The NHL has done a better job of trying to get that type of hit out of the game, as the suspension of Kostopoulos indicates. But the head shot apologists like Mike Milbury greatly inflate the circumstances when a player is required to keep his head up.

If a player isn't in possession of the puck and is merely looking for it, there's no reason a defender should take advantage by willfully attacking his opponent's head. Defending that hit by saying the victim should have kept his head up only distorts the meaning of a long-time hockey truism.

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