It is the biggest question being asked around the NHL right now: "Why isn't there an automatic ejection for a hit to the head?"
The most interesting thing about asking this question to players, coaches and executives is that they agree concussions are a problem. They agree certain hits must be outlawed. But, many disagree that a head hit should be an automatic ejection.
Why? Glad you asked. Several reasons:
Remember this hit? Letang was given a major and a game misconduct for drilling Blake Comeau, only to have the league rescind the penalty upon further review.
"The game is so fast now," said one NHL coach, who asked his name not be used. "It's almost impossible for two referees on-ice to make this kind of call in the moment. How many times after a big hit are we watching it on slow-motion and still having trouble determining if it was clean or not?"
This leads to concern that a player delivering a hard, but clean, check could be erroneously ejected from a crucial game. Imagine that Letang hit happened in an elimination game and the Penguins were defeated? Would the Pittsburgh fans/organization - angry now about Sidney Crosby's concussion - back such a rule in that circumstance? (Especially if it benefited Washington or Philadelphia.)
Players will take advantage
"I can't tell you how many times in a game I see a player hold the puck against the boards, look over his shoulders to see who's coming, and then turn back to try and draw a penalty," said Anaheim's Todd Marchant, who is scheduled to play game number 1,165 Thursday night in Toronto.
Mark Letestu doesn't have that reputation, but he alluded to Marchant's point on Hockey Night in Canada Radio during Wednesday's show.
"It's a tool," Letestu told Jeff Marek and Kelly Hrudey. "Turning your back, you hope your opponents aren't going to bury you when you're vulnerable like that, but as an offensive player, sometimes I have to show my back like that to get some space and ... if a guy finishes, it's a boarding penalty."
Marchant does agree that something needs to be done. He feels players without the puck need to be protected, and he cannot stand intentional head shots. However, he also wonders...
"Why doesn't the 'hittee' take any responsibility?"
"How come Teemu Selanne, who has the puck all the time, never gets hit?" Marchant asked.
That isn't quite accurate, as Selanne was clobbered by Niklas Kronwall earlier this season, but there's a reason the Finnish Flash remains one of the game's great offensive forces at age 40.
Selanne immediately knocked on wood upon hearing Marchant's question.
"What we've learned about concussions is very scary. It's something that has to be taken seriously," he said. "But it's also a two-way street. When I'm on the ice, it's my job to keep my head up, know who is out there ...who will be running around trying to make hits. I know he's on a different level, but what made Wayne Gretzky so good? He always had a plan ... he knew where he was going to pass the puck before he even got it."
In this respect, there seems to be a huge divide between younger and older NHLers. The younger players grew up with stiff anti-head-hit rules in minor, junior, NCAA and international hockey. Older players feel, as a result, many of them arrived in the NHL with bad habits (i.e. skating with their heads down) because of this protection.
(One GM did say he thought the all-encompassing zero-tolerance rule will be enacted once most of those who never played with it are retired.)
"Young players need to be taught how to defend against a hit," Marchant said. "Somewhere along the line, it isn't happening."
Fix the equipment
This is Kris King's job in the hockey operations department. This year, King introduced a new, softer, shoulder pad. It's frightening to think what injury Brad Stuart would've suffered if Tom Kostopoulos was wearing an old one. But King thinks it will take two years to really understand the impact of this change.
On Wednesday, Brendan Shanahan tweeted a photo of the Howie Morenz-era shoulder pads he wore throughout his career. Don't laugh. Dave Ellett, who played 1,129 NHL games, said a few weeks ago the best thing the NHL could do is dress everyone from the waist down in the current equipment, but in 1980s/90s stuff above that.
This is a supplementary discipline issue
Let's go back to the coach quoted in the Letang example, who thinks it's too tough a call for the on-ice officials.
"Over the past decade, look at all of the major issues we've gotten rid of," he said. "Knee-on-knee collisions were a huge problem. Not anymore. Then, hitting from behind was big. That's been cut down. After the lockout, the league wanted to eliminate obstruction. The game was completely changed.
"The players adapt. You've got to hit the first guy ... 20 games. I don't care if it was an accident. If he hits the head, he gets 20 games. The next guy gets 10. You will see a change."
I know, I know. Leaving anything up to supplementary discipline in the NHL is a total crapshoot. Maybe there's some hope, though. Kostopoulos got six games for a non-blindside hit. Scott Nichol got four, and wasn't even whistled for a penalty. Mike Brown was sat for three, even though he didn't mean it.
But if this isn't the solution, there are only two other options.
"It's a fast, dangerous game out there," Marchant says. "You can't hold up anyone any more." The implication is: you can make the game safer by going back to the old obstruction rules. But, he, you and I know that's not an option.
The other choice is zero-tolerance. The movement is growing (I think the GM mentioned above will eventually be proven right). If the NHL truly wants to avoid that rule, it's running out of time to act.
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