I’m starting this column off with a disclaimer: This is a Penguins site (non-affiliated). We talk about the Penguins or things related to the Penguins 99% of the time here. Most of us here are hockey fans. This column isn’t coming from a Penguins fan. It’s coming from a hockey fan.
The NHL has a serious problem. The league’s priorities are way out of whack. While fans are mostly disgusted about the league’s replay issues along with the inability to consistently call goaltender interference, the issue of protecting players from head shots isn’t being talked about enough. Unfortunately, it takes a major hit, like Tom Wilson‘s hit on Zach Aston-Reese, to bring a fan base’s attention back to head shots.
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to hits to the head. Rule 124, Section i states the following:
There is no such thing as a clean hit to the head. Whether accidental or intentional, every direct hit to the head or neck of an opponent will be penalized.
The NHL needs to adopt the same principal. Too much is left to interpretation by the officials and the league. I would even think it’s fine to allow the league to interpret how severe the punishment is depending on the hit.
For example, if the officials determine the hit was accidental, it’s at least a two-minute minor and the league automatically looks into the hit to see if there was any complete disregard for player safety. If there is, then a justifiable fine or suspension should follow.
The high-sticking rule in the NHL is enforced whether it was intentional or accidental. A player must have control of his stick at all times. Why shouldn’t the same principle be enforced for head shots? A player should have control of how they deliver a check at all times. Obviously if a player changes body position at the last millisecond before a hit is delivered, the league should take that into account when determining if a player deserves any fines or suspensions. Either way, a penalty should still follow.
This rule suggestion would drive old-school hockey guys like Mike Milbury, Keith Jones, Jeremy Roenick, and others crazy. And guess what? That’s okay. They don’t have to like it. After all, none of these guys were finesse players on the ice, especially the one who may have beaten a fan with a shoe.
That is also a part of the problem with the game. Mark Madden of 105.9 The X, wrote a column about how hockey doesn’t have the proper voice of reason, listing the guys above as ambassadors of the game to the casual fan. And he’s completely right. If these are the guys who the casual fans listen to about game analysis, then they are a significant part of the problem.
The NFL’s game used to have a lot of head shots. They were just considered a part of the game. It was the risk that players took when they stepped on the field.
Then came the lawsuits. The NFL is still currently paying millions and millions of dollars because of lawsuits against the league from former players dealing with concussions and the growing knowledge of CTE, which is known to have played at least a significant role in taking the lives of former players, including Steelers great Mike Webster.
The NHL will have a similar problem on their hands if they don’t change things. The National Hockey League can learn from mistakes of other professional sports leagues and try to get ahead of any further damage that could happen to players’ brains.
Institute a zero-tolerance policy on head shots. It should not cost lives. Screw the former player’s opinions. They won’t be singing the same tune when they start suffering the effects of CTE later on in their lives. We shouldn’t have to wait until a profile former player kills himself to raise awareness and make changes. Make the change now.