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Mishkin's Moments: The Hitting Dilemma

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

Last week in Toronto, NHL General Managers met to discuss the pressing subject of hits to the head.  Already this year, several players have gotten concussions after absorbing thunderous checks.  A similar type of hit in the OHL sent one player to the hospital with a fractured skull and compelled the league to suspend the other player for the rest of the season, ending his junior career. 

Following the meetings, Lightning GM Brian Lawton told the Tampa Tribune that “everyone recognizes that the safety of the players is a high priority topic for the general managers.  It’s up to the league to set the rules and parameters.  As the guys continue to get bigger and faster and we open up the game more, I think you are going to need to be on top of it and make changes.” 

Not just the GMs, but everyone involved in the game agrees that something needs to be done.  But what?  There are plenty different perspectives and opinions to this complicated issue.

Personal Responsibility:  If you ask today’s player about these hits, often he will talk about personal responsibility.  In other words, the onus is on each player to keep his head up at all times and not to put himself in a “vulnerable” position, such as turning his back on the opposition to face the boards.  Players point out that better communication between teammates can prevent many of these hits.  The question then becomes: are today’s players being coached properly at a young age to instinctively protect themselves?  If so, this part of the solution rests not as much at the professional level, but instead in the minor hockey ranks.

The Lack of Obstruction: Others might contend that while it’s true that today’s player doesn’t protect himself as well as those from past generations, the game itself is much faster than it was even a few years ago.  When the league implemented new rules regarding obstruction, fore-checkers were suddenly given a free pass to line up the opposition defense.  Previously, when one defenseman played a puck behind his net, his partner might step in front of an attacking fore-checker, slowing that forward’s pace.  But that is no longer a legal play.  So fore-checkers can steamroll into the offensive zone and hit the opposition with greater speed than before.  So even if a player keeps his head up and is given fair warning, he might not have time to get out of the way and/or protect himself.

The Definition of a “Clean” Hit: Many hockey people believe that as long as a check isn’t from behind and doesn’t involve a shot to the head, it’s clean.  If a player has his head down and is exposed to a hard check, well, then, too bad for him.  The other week, however, I heard former Rangers’ GM Neil Smith give a differing opinion.  He stated that the culture of the game has changed in recent decades.  What is viewed as a “clean” hit today, especially those against the boards, didn’t occur for most of the sport’s history.  Some like Smith seem to feel that many of today’s hits are delivered with such force that one might question whether the checker is not just trying disrupt a play, but actually injure the opponent.  Yet players are coached to “finish their checks”.  So can the culture of the game be changed back?  And is that something that players, coaches, managers and fans even want?

The Respect Issue:  Tag-teaming with the “clean” hit debate is the issue of respect, or lack thereof.  Players from earlier generations agree that today’s players don’t respect each other as much.  That’s why a player with his head down might not just be knocked to the ice, he may be knocked out of the lineup for an extended period.

The Instigator Rule:  Following up on the last two points, many see the instigator rule as the main culprit.  Rather than reduce the number of fights, they say, the instigator rule has actually led to more chippy play.  A player need not worry about retaliation or retribution, so he might be inclined to hit more recklessly.  Prior to the instigator rule, players policed themselves, so the equation was simple and straight forward.  If someone wanted to “run around”, then fine.  But he did so at his own peril.  The anti-instigators think that if players had to answer for overly exuberant hits, then the number of injurious plays would be greatly reduced.  Of course, there’s no indication that the league is even remotely considering eliminating the instigator penalty.

The Equipment:  During one of our “Seven with Seven” segments during a radio broadcast last week, Hall-of-Famer Phil Esposito commented that today’s shoulder and elbow pads are much harder than in years past.  So when players deliver a hit, the force is more severe than it used to be.  It seems unlikely that shoulder and elbow pads would regress, but there apparently has been talk about a newer, more secure helmet.  Phil pointed out, though, that a stronger helmet wouldn’t protect players from hits to the jaw, which are just as prevalent as blows directly to the head.  Also, not all players choose to wear mouthpieces, but Lightning Assistant Trainer Mike Poirier told me that NHL trainers universally agree that mouthpieces effectively guard against concussions – both in terms of whether a player gets one and the severity of the concussion.

League Rule Changes:  What the GMs discussed last week was likely a precursor to some rule changes in the near future.  Referees may be given the latitude to determine whether a hit was “clean” or not.  Apparently, the latter would involve a dangerous hit on an unsuspecting player – one who’s not in a position where he could logically expect to be hit.  They’ll have additional meetings next spring and don’t be surprised if the league implements a new standard on hits for 2010-11.

As I stated at the beginning of the article, this is a complicated problem.  The bottom line is that neither the league nor the union wants the number of these head injuries to continue to grow.  Time will tell if together, they can effectively reduce them.

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