Thursday, June 9, 2011

Halting the Head Shot Horrors

Once again, the NHL has found itself dealing with an on-ice incident that has left one player with a severe concussion and the League having to mete out discipline based on less than concrete guidelines.

Boston's Nathan Horton was destroyed by a late hit from Vancouver's Aaron Rome in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The destructive power of the hit left Horton prone on the ice, his mind in some other arena than the TD Garden, and being wheeled off the ice on a stretcher. Rome was given a 5 minute major for interference and a game misconduct. In a hearing the next day with the League's temporary sheriff, Mike Murphy, Rome was suspended for four games, removing him from the rest of the Stanley Cup finals.

There has been argument on both sides, with Boston fans claiming this was not enough of a punishment and Vancouver fans claiming the suspension was either too harsh or altogether unwarranted. From the perspective of the fan base, those arguments will never be resolved.

The real issue for the League is how to resolve the fact that the game is a fast paced , intense, and physical with the desire to protect players.

The League took a step in that direction with the establishment and emphasis on the Rule 48, the illegal check to the head. This rule prohibits the blind side hit (from behind) and lateral hit (from the side), and the heightened emphasis from the League has helped to cut down on the number of dangerous plays that resulted in serious injuries to players.

So why are we still talking about this? And more importantly, why did we see another player carted off the ice with his playing career in jeopardy?

There are three factors that contribute to the on-going problem with these types of hits.

The first is that Rule 48 is open to the vagaries of interpretation. For instance, how many times during the regular season did you hear an announcer talk about a player "turning into the hit" before being blown up by an opponent? Or ask if the contact was first "shoulder to shoulder" before witnessing a player nearly being decapitated? Oh yeah, all of us have heard a hit being described as a "hockey play" as a player is being destroyed by a check to the head, much like Raffi Torres did to Chicago's Brent Seabrook in Round 1 in a collision behind the net.

And nowhere in the language of Rule 48 does it prohibit a shot to an opponent's head if it coming from straight ahead.

These loopholes leave the on-ice officials with the dilemma of interpreting a play that has just occurred at full speed and trying to make a decision as to a penalty call and any further discipline.

So it should be easy for the League's disciplinarian, which will soon be former player Brendan Shanahan, to look at these plays and make a valid ruling as to the type of discipline that should be meted out when a violation of Rule 48 occurs?


Not really.

This is because of the second factor that comes into play in these situations, and that is the reliance on "intent" to determine the level of punishment. In reviewing these incidences, the League often relies on an interpretation- theirs- of the players intent in the play in question.

I would submit to you that is ludicrous.

Egregious offenders of League rules- think Todd Bertuzzi after his malicious hit on Steve Moore or Matt Cooke after his devastating hit on Marc Savard- never once have said it was their "intent" to hurt the other player. Believe that if you want, but please tell me how the League is going to judge intent in those situations or in any situation that is occurring at high speed and requires split second decisions on the ice?

Frankly, the League cannot determine intent and it is the height of arrogance on their part to think they can. Using intent as a basis for determining disciplinary action is so nebulous as to not be a standard at all.

Every parent has had the situation with their child where something has gone wrong, and one of the first things out of their innocent mouth is "I didn't mean to..." We as parents know that judging the intent of our children is next to impossible. More often than not, "I didn't mean to" translates into "I didn't think something bad would happen."

What the league is doing with the vague and subjective standard of determining intent is in essence saying, like a child, "I hope nothing bad happens." This is eventually going to lead to a disastrous outcome on the ice and is just insane.

"Hoping that nothing bad happens" is the third factor that comes into play in these dangerous situations. The League calls it "outcome", and they look at the result of the play to determine the measure of discipline that will be meted out to the offending player.

This begs the question, if Nathan Horton had gotten back up after that hit and was able to play, would Aaron Rome have received any supplemental discipline? Irrespective of the fact that Rome put a player in a very dangerous situation, would the League have done anything else if Horton was still playing?

Probably not.

And this is outrageous and will eventually lead to a player suffering a horrific injury.

Using the outcome of a play to determine any supplemental discipline continues to invite these types of plays. Regardless of outcome, a dangerous hit is a dangerous hit, and using outcome to mitigate the punishment of a player that puts another in peril with a dangerous hit is foolish.

There is much talk from players, coaches, management, and owners about players about the lack of respect for players by other players; that if we want these injuries to be eliminated, then players have to respect one another.

Frankly, respect has been talked to death.

Telling players to respect the game and to respect each other just isn't working.

So how do we keep the physicality in the game without endangering the players?

First, if the League is serious, eliminate all head shots. I know, purists will immediately say that it will take away the physical aspect of the game and forever alter the character of the on-ice product. I call B.S. The NFL has eliminated the helmet to helmet hit and the game is still a violent, physical contest. This doesn't mean that hits to the head don't occur in the NFL and would not occur in the NHL. They will. The NFL reviews those plays and any violations are adjudicated within 24 hours, usually with a fine.

The NHL could implement a similar system of fines or keep a system of suspensions in place, or some combination of the two. The important point for the League and the protection of the players is that the system be consistent and equitable. The penalty that  a grinder receives for delivering a blow to the head of an opponent should be no diffrent than the penalty that a "star" receives for the same action.

Which leads to the second, and I think obvious, necessity in reforming the system. Eliminate the inane attempt to determine intent. The League cannot determine intent, the officials on the ice cannot, and many times a player in the heat of a tightly fought contest cannot determine intent either. The League has to have consistent standards based on the action on the ice regardless of the motive in a player's heart.

Finally, remove the obscene standard of outcome. Using outcome to determine the type, if any, of the disciplinary action is beyond reason. Suppose I fire a gun at you with the intent to kill you and I miss (in real life, my aim is better than that, but we can talk about that later). If the American legal system used the NHL's "justice" standards, although my desire was to hit you with the shot and I missed, the outcome was not so bad, so I would receive a nominal punishment. Using outcome in this example has shown that a standard such as that devalues your life. Using outcome of a rules violation in the NHL shows that the players on the ice have been devalued by the League.

Obviously, a consistent and agreed upon set of disciplinary measures must be established with the players. With the upcoming CBA negotiations, what better time to bring this issue to the table. Players have to know without a doubt what will happen when they cross a line of behavior on the ice. Having a clearly defined set of standards and consequences has to be better than the League's chief disciplinarian having to call to currently recused disciplinarian as well as a rival team's GM to get input on the punishment. I don't care if Brian Burke formerly occupied that role, he is now the GM of a competing team and has had some not so stellar relations with the current owner of the team whose player was going to be disciplined.

Frankly, that is an embarrassing circus that the NHL has to determine discipline in this manner.

The inconsistency in dealing with these types of hits sullies the perception of the League among fans of the game as well as casual fans. More importantly, it places the players at undue risk. It is time for the League to step up and take responsibility for protecting players by implementing a consistent standard of no head shots and disciplinary action for violation of the rules.

Only then will the League halt the horrific injuries from head shots.

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