Head Contact In The NHL: Something Needs To Change

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Head Contact In The NHL: Something Needs To Change

By now, most of you have probably seen the brutal Tuomo Ruutu hit from behind on Darcy Tucker from the Hurricanes-Avalanche game last week.  Unfortunately, that hit was not the only one in the NHL this week that sent a player to the hospital.  In the Flyers-Panthers game on Saturday night, MIke Richards put a devastating check on David Booth:


Was the Richards hit clean? Richards was given a major penalty for interference and a game misconduct for intent to injure but was not suspended by the NHL.  It looks to me as if Richards may have left his feet slightly on the hit, and he definitely went into Booth's head with his shoulder.  I think the hit merited a suspension; there are some that would argue that the hit was clean.

On the other hand, there is no question that the Ruutu hit was dirty.  He checked a player from behind, and into the boards. Those kinds of hits are inexcusable, his own coach expected a suspension, and he was rightly suspended for three games.

In its most simple form, the difference between the two hits was that technically, Richards hit Booth from the front, and Ruutu clearly hit Tucker from behind.  Both of the hits led to significant injury.  In both cases, the players being hit were defenseless. Is it right that the decision to suspend a player hinges on whether or not the hit was delivered from the front or from the back?  Or on whether the hit was into the boards or at open ice?

The NHL's evaluation of such hits needs to change.  Personally, I believe that the NHL should weigh the potential for a given hit to cause serious injury, rather than the manner in which a hit was delivered (from the front of from behind, arms up or down, etc.).  Devastating open-ice hits are seemingly on the rise in the NHL:  Donald Brashear on Blair Betts hit in the playoffs last year, the Willie Mitchell on Jonathan Toews hit, etc.. And in most cases, such hits lead to significant injury.  The NHL should be alarmed, here; Some of the big-name players starting to miss time as a result of such hits, and the league cannot afford to have its top draws missing time due to avoidable and preventable injuries.

It's a tough line for the league to walk because everybody likes to see clean, hard, open-ice hits, but at the same time, nobody likes to see players taken off on stretchers.  The million dollar question, then, is how to prevent the injuries without removing open-ice hits from the game.

Perhaps the way to do this is to impose a zero-tolerance policy for hits deemed to be delivered to the head. Concussions are VERY serious injuries and blows to the head, even when they do not cause concussions, are not to be taken lightly (see the dementia studies on former NFL players). In Richards' case, I do not think there was any intent to hit Booth in the head.  I think he intended to shoulder Booth in the chest and missed.  Regardless, the severity of the injuries that can result from such hits, in my mind, justifies a harsh policy regardless of intent.  The elimination of what, for the most part, are blindside hits is a small price to pay to increase player safety across the league.

At the same time, part of the burden is on the players.  Players with the puck need to be more careful.  With the size, speed, and strength of opposing players, a skater must always have his head up and must be especially aware when coming across the middle and going into the boards.  Players looking to deliver hits also need to be more careful when they hit.  More care needs to be taken to ensure that arms stay down and that hits are not delivered to the head because I don't believe that the majority of NHL players are actively trying to blast opponents' heads with their hits. Furthermore, players need to be more respectful of each other: there really is no reason to crush a defenseless player with a blindside hit.  Yes, the player should not have put himself in that position, but at the same time, the fact that a player put himself in a vulnerable position does not give anyone the right to try and take his head off.

In the end, the entire discussion boils down to purpose of a check in the game of hockey: intimidation or tactics.  I think my pee-wee hockey coach put it best: the goal of a check is to separate the guy from the puck, not the guy from consciousness.  NHL players would do well to consider that piece of wisdom before hitting an opponent.

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