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John Garrett: Headshots

by John Garrett / Vancouver Canucks
The National Hockey League took great pride in announcing that this year it had gone the furthest into a season without having to issue a suspension.

John Scott had the dubious honour of being the first to face the wrath of the new discipline boss, Stephane Quintal, in game No. 120. His offence was getting involved in a fight during a legal line change. He got two games as covered by rule 70.2. This rule is relatively straightforward. In the week since the first suspension there has been five more for high hits. Yes, count them five.

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John Garrett is a former Canuck and currently the colour commentator for Sportsnet Pacific.

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Quintal takes over from Brendan Shanahan, who took over from Colin Campbell. Campbell was more old school and had standards that reflected his attitude toward the game as a player in the 70s and 80s. Shanahan was more specific and sent out video explanations of his rulings. These were available to anyone and were a positive move to help us understand the thinking behind the decisions. Often the length of the suspension depended on the history of the offending player and upon the severity of the injury to the victimized party. Shanahan had some detractors, but all in all he did a good job and most of all gave the office some transparency. It was not just “here is the ruling“ but ”here is the ruling and here is why I ruled this way.”

The league is trying to get the players to buy into the fact that the game can be played in a physical fashion without headshots and high hits. More and more players are missing games with concussions than ever before. There is a lawsuit by former players saying the NHL did not do enough to protect their safety and at that time ignored some serious symptoms. Quintal is charged with the task of providing a strong deterrent through fines and suspensions so the players will make the proper and safe decision. This is easier said than done.

Hockey is a physical game, played at incredible speed in a confined space. The players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before. You are taught to finish your checks or you will never succeed. It is an important, basic part of the game. Quintal is trying to establish his own standard, but it is not easy. Alex Burrows was suspended for three games for a hit on Alexei Emelin. There was no penalty called on the play. Emelin made a pass up the middle and was losing his balance. Burrows was coming from the side, not from behind, and was in peripheral view of Emelin. He finished his check and made contact with, after the shoulder, Emelin’s head. Emelin went to the dressing room for the remainder of the 2nd period and returned to play a regular shift in the 3rd.

Quintal and his staff looked at the hit and explained it this way. They said the hit was late and Burrows could have been suspended for that. They also said that the primary point of contact was to the head. In their explanation they also said that Alex Burrows has been fined four times. To me this says that they consider him a repeat offender. Andrew Ferrence went after Zack Kassian and caught him with a flying elbow. He was given two minutes for an illegal hit to the head during the game and then a three game suspension from the league office upon review. Anton Volchenkov of the Nashville Predators got four games for a forearm to the back of the head of Michel Ferland of the Calgary Flames. Ferland was hurt and has not played since.

I have no problem with rulings of the league. I do not agree with some of them but they explain themselves and have their opinion and I can have mine. Where I do have a problem is when they say this will slow down and eventually eliminate high hits and hits to the head and the injuries that come with them.

Why is there a two-minute penalty for a hit to the head? It is rule 48 in the NHL rule book and goes like thisL “Illegal check to the head is a hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable.” There are some mitigating circumstances listed like if the player changes his body position immediately prior to contact so his head was put in a vulnerable position, or whether the checking player was trying for the full body check and extended at a bad angle making the head not the main target. These I guess would lead to a minor penalty being called. What is the point? If they are trying to get rid of this a check to the head is a check to the head. There should be no grey area for the on ice officials. A check to the head, intentional or not, should be a five-minute penalty and a game misconduct.

Stephane Quintal can get involved on the suspension side after but if the call is there, make it. If players know they are going to get tossed for making contact to the head maybe they would keep their elbows and shoulders down. It is ludicrous to think that you get the same punishment for shooting the puck over the glass as you do for taking somebody’s head off.

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