By Stu Hackel
When the NHL resumes its deliberations on what will constitute an illegal hit to the head next season, the one above by Toronto's 6-foot-4, 243-pound defenseman Mike Komisarek on Colorado's 5-foot-10, 170-pound rookie Mark Olver will be among the most contentious types of blows. It left Olver trying to crawl off the ice, weakened and apparently dazed, unable to make it back to the bench. He left the game and did not return.
This was not an illegal check under the current rules. But it is a perfect example of the challenges the NHL faces as it mulls the changes it needs to reduce concussions.
Olver's coach, Joe Sacco, said, “From what I saw, it looked like it was a good hit. Obviously, you have to have ice awareness, when the puck’s coming through the middle. He’s a smaller guy remember, too, and losing him didn’t help because he’s been playing very well for us.”
Komisarek defended himself, saying, “I just thought it was a north-south hit, trying to finish your check. I hope he's okay. I don’t think it was a dirty play or an attempt to injure. It was a good hockey hit. I caught him pretty square.”
Every hit that makes contact with the head now comes under great scrutiny in the wake of the rising number of concussions suffered by NHL players, and the avowed efforts of the NHL to cut those numbers as best it can -- not to mention the mounting medical evidence that multiple concussions may cause degenerative brain disease.
This specific hit prompted a couple of divergent opinions from two well-known hockey commentators, TSN's Bob McKenzie and The Toronto Star's Damien Cox. On Montreal radio's Team 990 Morning Show on Friday (which you can hear on this page in the station's archive), McKenzie -- who was among the first to come out for stronger rules on headchecks -- expressed his current thoughts, which are slightly less strident than a few years ago. He's changed some views now, believing that while zero tolerance is needed for all amateur (up through major junior and college) and international hockey, the NHL -- as the highest level of the game, where body contact is part of what the league is selling -- should have some "inherent level of danger and risk that is far beyond what we should accept at any other level of hockey." (And only the OHL among current major junior leagues has zero tolerance, something McKenzie feels needs to be corrected.)
Komisarek's hit was, for McKenzie, a case in point. "Olver is looking for a pass through the neutral zone -- and it's your classic suicide pass, and Olver should be mad at his defenseman who gave it to him because the defenseman's got to read that Komisarek's lurking there waiting to step up on the guy," McKenzie said. "And Olver makes contact with the puck. Komisarek comes up and I don't think he targeted the head, but the shoulder went right into his face.
"And it pains me to see Olver crawling off the ice and losing his faculties because you know how devastating that concussion can be. But I'm not sure if you say that's a penalty or that's a major or that's a suspension. I do sorta line up with the dinosaurs on this one and say, 'Are we going to take all the hitting out of the game? Did Komisarek have to give him a free pass just because he's in the neutral zone and he isn't fully aware of what's going on around him?'
"So I'm really torn," McKenzie concludes. "My heart breaks when I see a guy like Olver in distress like that, and yet, it's a physical game played by the most elite athletes in the world at their positions...It's a complex thing. That for me is exhibit A on why it's not such a black and white world we live in and you just can't say at the NHL level, 'Make every hit to the head an illegal hit to the head.' Although one day we may be down that road."
The bottom line for McKenzie is that, at the NHL level, "It's a dangerous game played by dangerous people...That's part of the risk of the game."
There are some problems with McKenzie's view, which he probably would acknowledge, and they pose challenges for the NHL. First, as more leagues adopt stronger headchecking rules, more players are entering the NHL from leagues where they aren't getting the experience needed to keep their heads up and develop the awareness required at the NHL level. When are they supposed to develop it, once they turn pro? Previously, they learned in minor hockey and were prepared for the dangers of the professional game when they reached that level.
Olver, for example, was a standout player at Northern Michigan University in the CCHA, where headchecking rules are strong. The guy who fed him the pass on Thursday night, Jonas Holos, played his entire career until this season in Norway and Sweden. He's had 30 games of NHL experience and likely hasn't learned, as McKenzie rightly says all NHL defensemen should, to read the play and avoid that suicide pass. Like Olver, he's played in leagues where such a thing wasn't a problem, and so have most of the young guys coming into the pro ranks today.
A second issue with McKenzie's view is the main point raised by Cox in his blog. For McKenzie, one reason it was a good hit was because "Olver makes contact with the puck." But as Cox sees it, "Mark Olver never, ever was in possession of the puck. Period. It was near him. It went past him. It was either a bad pass he couldn't corral or a good one he flubbed. But there's no chance he was ever in actual possession making a stick-handling motion of any kind. Olver no more had the puck than Komisarek did. If you don't have the puck, how can you possibly be fair game for a thundering hit like the one Komisarek laid on him Thursday night in Denver?"
It's a fair point and it speaks to the concept of what constitutes possession of the puck. As McKenzie said, Olver "made contact with the puck." The pass from Holos was elevated and ahead of Olver, who could only reach out and get his blade on it to try to knock it down. He couldn't really play it.
We discussed the notion of "keeping your head up" and possession of the puck earlier this season. In this case, is mere contact sufficient to establish possession?
Well, yes. The NHL rules pretty much define possession as touching the puck. For example, on interference, the rule states, "The last player to touch the puck, other than the goalkeeper, shall be considered the player in possession. The player deemed in possession of the puck may be checked legally, provided the check is rendered immediately following his loss of possession." A literal interpretation means all the player need do is touch the puck and he's fair game as long as the hitter gets him immediately.
Olver can't help but be vulnerable in this situation, however, unless he can achieve actual possession, and in some way make a purposeful play rather than merely wave at the puck.
"Komisarek's hit was a hockey play, at least, and there will be those that will argue, as always, that Olver's head should have been up and looking for an opposing player (wasn't his main job to receive a pass from a teammate?) and that having the puck in the general vicinity constitutes possessions," Cox argues. "And you know what? In a traditional sense, they're right. That's how it's been called for a long, long time.
"But if you can't get that hit out of the game, if a player doesn't have to be in actual possession of the puck before getting laid out at centre ice, then the NHL and hockey in general has no chance whatsoever of improving its dismal and deteriorating record on headshots and concussions."
Does this mean the notion of possession has to be rethought and redefined for the rule book?
Make no mistake, there are factions among the league's general managers and they have widely differing views on how to proceed with establishing rules to govern what is permissible on hits to the head and what is not. They range from holding the line at the current Rule 48, which only bans blindside and lateral hits, and those who want a total ban on all checks that make contact with the head. The consensus middle ground -- expanding on Rule 48 but making sure the rules don't discourage hitting -- is the current dominant view.
That's one reason the league empowered a committee of former players -- Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman, Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk, NHL VP Brendan Shanahan and former defenseman Rob Blake of the NHL's Hockey Operations Department -- to help develop guidelines on this and other issues, and to steer the discussion on what changes are needed if the NHL isn't prepared to move to zero tolerance and wants to keep what McKenzie calls "the element of danger" in the game.
To make progress on this issue, the committee will have to factor into its deliberations the changing way that players are developing and some pretty subtle rulebook notions. It isn't going to be easy.