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Headshots Not Part Of The Game

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

   

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As NHL general managers address the issue of head shots in their winter meetings, let me take you back a decade to my worst day on the job.

I was in the press box in Philly, May of 2000 when Scott Stevens cruised behind a screen set by his partner Brian Rafalski and drove his shoulder and bicep into the tragically vulnerable Eric Lindros.

It was, by any accounting, a legal hit, the kind that would later earn Stevens a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

It also came at the expense of a player who had incurred four concussions in four months and was just back after 10 weeks on the sidelines because of concussions.

This is what Stevens said afterwards.

"It's an important time and the way Eric played in his first game back (on Wednesday), he was their best player, which is unbelievable being off 10 weeks. Coming into Game 7, I'm thinking there is one player on that team that can win that game and it could have been him."

It was him. Soon after the ambulance pulled out of the building, the Devils won the game and advanced to the Stanley Cup finals.

The hit altered the already fragile orbit of Lindros’ career and as the 20,000 people watched his wooden features on the big screen, the most bloodthirsty audience in the NHL was shocked into revulsion. It was sickening. You walked out of the arena feeling like a witness to an execution.

We will never know what kind of player Eric Lindros could have been and surely Scott Stevens is only one of the players with his fingerprints on Lindros’ professional epitaph.

Nor will be sure whether Cam Janssen’s head shot on Thomas Kaberle altered Kaberle’s skill set or whether Mike Richards’ brutal blindside on the Panthers’ David Booth will choke off a career laced with promise. We don’t know if Matt Cooke’s blindside shoulder on Marc Savard means the Bruins will never fully reap the rewards of a new contract extension. It was much the same when his teammate Patrice Bergeron was concussed after being hit from behind by the Flyers’ Randy Hughes.

We do know, and Stevens’ words are illustrative, that hitting and potentially harming a player is a tactic. That’s why it should be regulated.

Four years ago, alarmed by the swelling number of concussions, the Ontario Hockey League created a new category of crime.

“We have basically said that any blow to the head is an illegal hit,” said Commissioner Dave Branch. He said enforcement has been so easy because blow to the head come so infrequently.

There is no news in that. Nashville Predator GM David Poile estimates that head shots account for perhaps 10 of the 50,000 hits ladled out in a season.

The problem, of course, is that they are so catastrophic.

Those 10 headshots did infinitely more damage, to the people and the game, than the 50,000 lesser checks. And that’s the problem. It’s just not worth it. Head shots endanger lives, alter careers and tarnishes the game.

Branch said change will come when the opportunity to injure the way Stevens did that night is viewed a choice. So far, he said, the OHL plan is working fine for all concerned.

“You can’t play the game by yourself,” he said. “As funny as it sounds, there’s a duty, a responsibility to protect your opponent.”
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