Thursday, June 4, 2009

Heady Plays

Anaheim calling to the hockey world . . .

The NHL's general managers gathered in Pittsburgh this week, greeting their newest members, and taking a second look at the NHLPA's proposed rule on headshots. Since the front office bosses last considered the issue, several shoulder checks to the head have made the front page, but the GMs were unfazed by the media coverage, voting the proposition down for the second time.

The rejected rule change was reportedly similar to the Ontario Hockey League's Rule 48:

Rule 48 - Checking to the Head

A minor or a major and game misconduct penalty, at the discretion
of the referee based on the degree of impact, shall be assessed to any
player who checks an opponent to the head area in any manner.

A match penalty shall be assessed to any player who deliberately
attempts to injure an opponent by Checking to the Head.

Note: A hit to the head with a shoulder shall be considered an illegal
check and shall be penalized as checking to the head.

Implemented in the 2006-07 season, Rule 48 has been mostly successful. Its proponents cite the rule as invaluable to the health of the OHL's young players, while its detractors argue the rule's "any manner" wording leads to penalties where the player being hit may have ducked or otherwise moved his head into the contact point. Both sides seem to agree, however, that the rule effectively reduces physical contact in the game, at least around 20%.

Daniel, you and I may not have the most sympathetic perspective, having grown up with shoulder checks to the head, but at least for this question, let's keep in mind that our fathers grew up with helmet-to-helmet hits in the NFL. Should the NHL create a blanket penalty to penalize shoulder checks to the head, or will the current system of instituting fines after the fact always be enough?

I doubt that even Brett Lindros could convince me that shoulder checks to the head should be eliminated. And it's not that I think checks to the head are good. It's just that I don't think there's a fair way to regulate it. To an extent, this is a rule that would prevent Zdeno Chara, and Chris Pronger from ever taking the body. I've always been a fan of physical, intense hockey. I like hard checks in the corners and guys fighting for the puck. Also, the best defensive play is always to take the body. If you can detach the man from the puck, then you've done your job as a defender and it's time for transition offense. I realize that not every hit goes to the head, and mid-ice hits wouldn't stop, but there are too many variables. There is a chance that all a forward has to do is dip his head, so he can draw a penalty. That is going to lead to a lot of frozen defenders who won't take the body, and as a result we'll actually see more defenders letting the first shot through and boxing out on the second shot to clear the rebound. That way, they won't take useless penalties.

Look, the NHL has a history of adapting to the rules and adhering to the spirit of the law, rather than limiting themselves to the letter of the law. That's how they get the Evgeni Malkin call right, instead of screwing up like the NBA did when it suspended Stoudemire in the Suns-Spurs series a few years ago. The league could sell me on an intent to injure rule, maybe. But saying any hit to the head is a penalty is just unfair. It's like penalizing a guy for being taller. We like hard, physical hockey because it makes the space that the all-stars create that much more impressive.

I agree on the 'spirit of the law' point. I applaud the NHL for going back and reviewing the tapes, instead of asking the officials on the ice to determine when the line is crossed. However, since the NHL never explains HOW the line was crossed, they will continue to face accusations of favoritism and selective justice.

On shoulder checks to the head, I definitely sympathize with the NHLPA. The nature of concussions is that you're more susceptible to them once you've had one, and at this point, Havlat's skating with an eggshell around his brain. Also, from a lawmaking standpoint, it makes sense to shift the responsibility to the guys executing the hits, though I think we can all agree that the puck carriers have some duty to protect themselves.

But on a practical level, I just don't think it makes any sense. The intention on some of these hits is to get the guy in the chest with a shoulder, but collision is not a precise science. Does that mean players should be forced to turn and check a guy with their backs EVERY TIME they suspect they might catch his head?

I think the fines can have the desired effect, if used properly. Just as the NHL is going after goons and message-senders, I think they can go after guys that don't execute a proper hit, or regularly aim for the head. Niklas Kronwall had some pretty questionable aerial hits against the Ducks. If he'd been fined for those, he might have been more hesitant to lean forward into that hit on Havlat. It's not really unfair when you consider how closely the NHL watches the Ducks and the Flyers. It's a justice by reputation league.

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