Hits To The Head…Upon Whose Shoulders Does Responsibility Truly Rest?

Hits to the head have been gaining more and more attention since the return from the lock-out.  This is no surprise, rather, it’s the simple rule of unintended consequences.

When obstruction was removed from the game, through the stricter enforcement of hooking, holding, and straight up path interference, skill was allowed to come through, goals increased, and the over all pace of the game improved as slow players were forced out in favour of speedier, if not stronger options.  But it also created an environment ripe for devastating hits.  No longer could a player obstruct the opposition from delivering high speed hits on teammates.  Add to this the removal of the red line, increasing the speed of the pass receiver, while simultaneously putting them in a vulnerable “look back” position, and wham-o…hello concussions.

To be fair, nobody, player, owner or fan saw this coming.  Fewer still find real enjoyment in seeing somebody layed out on the ice, but, guiltily, we all enjoy open ice hitting.  The problem is, the hits are just a little too big, as a result of all of these factors.  Some want to reduce the equipment, some want to improve the impact distribution qualities of the equipment, some want to eliminate certain types of hits.  I believe the answer lies in a combination of all of these areas, not just one.

So why hasn’t it happened already?

Reason one would be plain old  bravado.  Players, and former players, who make up much of the media and management, live in a very old boys world view of looking weak is akin to being weak.  Nobody wants to be the “sweetie pie” who wears the chin strap securely done up, or complains about being hit too hard, or worse, about being scared.  But I believe, almost to a man, if the environment allowed for such words and deeds to exist, the game would be a different beast.  Look no further than visors.  Nobody but a very few Neanderthals still point to them as some form of a sign of masculinity.  Time has closed that door, and guess what, most players wear them…because they know they should, and know they can, without peer pressure reprisal.

The day will come when players freely wear concussion helmets, properly fastened.  But I believe it will require real leadership, from both the NHL, and the league, to address the size of the equipment, and the types of hits allowed in the game.  To this point this has yet to materialize.  Make no mistake, the recent posturing by the NHL is not legitimate leadership on this issue, it’s rampant scapegoating.

Many will decry the recent behaviour of the NHLPA on this issue as some form of “union crazy” behaviour, but even a simple examination of the reality surrounding this issue deflates this argument.  I ask you all to consider one question; When a player throws a marginal/predatory hit, does he really do it in complete isolation?  I contend he does not.  Sure, maybe not all of  the time, but more often than not that player knows it’s his job to throw big hits, and his sweet multi-million dollar job relies on his willingness to do so.  It is the NHL owner who sanctioned the players contract, it is the coach tacitly encouraging the hit.  W hen a Cooke, or a player of his ilk, is sent over the boards, often after a big hit against, or after a deflating goal against, he knows why he was singled out to play the next shift.  To make the big hit.

So why, I ask, does the new NHL rule only include penalties against the player?  Where is the coach in this, the team, the league?  Nowhere…completely sheltered from any responsibility.  And make no mistake, this was not by accident.

There are 2 BIG reasons this was done;

  1. Nobody craps in their own backyard.  Why would the BOG’s voluntarily take responsibility for something when you could just as easily shift it all on to someone else?
  2. Liability.  If the NHL accepts any responsibility for what happens on the ice, player to player, then suddenly they open themselves up to litigation.  By making the rule against headshots, and framing it within the context of “player choice”, they both indemnity themselves from the argument of “wild west” hockey where no rules apply, and shift the burden of responsibility entirely onto the shoulders of the player(s).  If an injured player should choose to litigate for damages, after a formerly illegal hit,  the rule as it now stands will have exonerated the NHL from responsibility, and instead placed it squarely, and solely, upon the player delivering the hit in question.

I content this is absolutely unacceptable.  So long as players, with spotty suspension histories, are signed to big money deals, and deliver little more than physical play on the ice, the league tacitly promotes such types of behaviour.  So where is their share of the responsibility in this new rule?

No doubt this is exactly what the players are asking.  This is not solely  a power play about what they (the NHLPA) can get in exchange for allowing a new rule, one susposedly to protect their own well being, this about sharing the responsibility for these types of hits. 

Here’s what I suggest, as a place to start.  Yes, by all means introduce a new rule, a rule which punishes such behaviour, but not just the player, but the team as well.  Let’s say Matt Cooke, a repeat offender, blindsides a guy into the boards, suspend him, make him lose money, but, make it cost the team too.  How about a draft pick, or cap space?  What if every intent to injure suspension cost the team a pick, a pick that went into a pool to be drawn from by those teams with the fewest intent to injure suspensions.   For every intent to injure suspension against, the team loses a pick, starting with their 5th, down to the 1st, if they run out, they start working on next year.  The team with the fewest (ideally, no) suspensions gets their choice of the forfeited picks, in ascending order of fewest suspensions, until all of the forfeited picks have been redistributed prior to the draft.

Or how about the team associated with the suspension pays either a fine, or half of the salary of the injured player, at the discretion of the offended team, and this money comes off of the offending teams cap space. You think the repealing of the instigator rule would protect stars, just imagine a team being on the hook for half of O.V’s contract…now that would make players think twice about scum-bagging a marquee player.

These sorts of penalties reflect the reality of the game, that players do not act in isolation, that they, and their actions, are a result of a larger environment, one that either openly, or tacitly encourages these types of hits, and the players who make them…again, and again, and again.

When the NHL and it’s owners a ready to take their lumps in improving player safety, then we’ll have real, fundamental change…and maybe a dose of actual partnership, not flowery lip service.



3 Responses to “Hits To The Head…Upon Whose Shoulders Does Responsibility Truly Rest?”

  1. Thanks for raising the liability issue, not only of players but all parties involved. The contact sports exception is pretty well established, but as far as I can tell it is a court precedent, not a law, and when a rule like that starts to be abused, it can change very quickly. It seems like the NHL (not only them, all the big contact sports) is in the process of walking this very thin line and if they don’t get it together, some lawyer with a valid law suit will do it for them.

  2. Thanks Petshark. The “liability” bomb will fall one day, no doubt. If I, as an employer, were to knowingly hire a repeat DUI offender to drive my company truck, and he should get into an accident doing so, while drunk, no doubt I would face some sort of liability for my decision to employ this person, in that capacity. An NHL team contracting a known past offender, with questionable character, and then playing them in an emotionally charged situation (say after a big hit against), resulting in them repeating their past predatory behaviour, would be very similar. Both the team, and the player share in the responsibility for the “illegal act”.
    The NHL cannot suck and blow all at once, and if they continue to do so…the ball will drop.

  3. GN:

    In the sixties in NYC some guys made a very good living as floppers in the traffic…there will some of that in the gestation period…see Buffalo #36.

    There will be some claw back as the Owners will demand the big hits, legal or not.

    I fully agree with you guys as far as the responsibility…Team’s Mgmt and Owners were very very lucky!

    Note: Every time I see the Scott Stevens’ hit I want to puke…it’s still in the Legal Hits package…I’d like to take that one to a Court of Law and I would bet my last million I’d win!

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