Hockey Night in Canada's Scott Morrison delivers his insights into the world of hockey, on and off the ice.
Head scratching over hits to the head
Friday, November 24, 2006 | 11:02 AM ET
By Scott Morrison
It's no secret that NHL general managers have been scratching their heads over hits to the head, the "legal" kind that is, for some time now.
When they met in Toronto a few weeks ago, they were presented with a highlight reel of thundering checks, most of the shoulder to jaw variety, that were legal under the rules, but left players concussed or with some variety of injury.
The verdict, and rightly so, was that the league has essentially removed low hits and has dealt harshly with illegal hits above the shoulders, if they were to eliminate more hitting, especially of the legal kind, there wouldn't be anything left. Or at the very least the target would be miniscule. Essentially, the message was that because of the speed of the game and the size differential in players, injuries will happen on clean hits, and the league insists there are no more now than ever before.
It was further rationalized that some of the players who have been hurt have either been admiring passes, looking back for them, or looking down at the puck - all moves contrary to what players are taught at a very early age, to never leave themselves vulnerable to the big hit.
Now, there have been assorted arguments about why these injuries seem to be happening more frequently, and severely, but if you subscribe to the theory that the league made the right call by allowing them, regardless of their origin, then this past week we were reminded of another consideration and concern.
The other night, Vancouver Canucks defenceman Willie Mitchell delivered a shoulder-to-jaw hit on Detroit Red Wings forward Johan Franzen, who had his bell rung and twisted his knee. The hit itself was clean, no elbow, etc., but Mitchell was given a two-minute penalty for interference. Meaning, the hit itself was legal, but the timing was not - and a player was left injured.
None of this is new, but it is something the league must and will keep a close eye on.
In this case, Mitchell did not receive supplementary discipline because the league obviously declared there wasn't an intent to injure, just bad timing. But there is the potential for late hits, punished only by two minutes, to become a serious problem.
"Anytime a guy passes the puck and starts watching the play and you want to run and hit him, you can do it," Red Wings veteran Chris Chelios told Detroit reporters Thursday. "If it's only going to be two minutes - I mean, look at the seriousness of the injury it can cause. There was intent there. The defenceman knows it was late. You can do that every game if you want to."
Whether Mitchell intended to hit late matters not now, but protecting the players does.
It's just another fine line the league has to be careful not to trip over, another consideration to make their heads hurt.
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About the Author
Scott Morrison, the recipient of the Hockey Hall of Fameís 2006 Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award, has been covering hockey for 25 years. The Toronto native began his career at the Toronto Sun in 1979. After spending more than 11 years as a hockey writer and columnist at the paper, Morrison became Sports Editor in 1991 and led the section to being named one of North America's top-ten sports sections in 1999 - the first sports section in Canada to receive the AP Sports Editors North American Award. Scott, a former two-term president of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, joined Rogers Sportsnet in 2001 as Managing Editor, Hockey, and is currently both a commentator on Hockey Night in Canada and a columnist for CBC.ca.
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