Janesville69.8°

It’s time for the NHL to take action on head shots

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Mark Whicker
June 10, 2011
— Paul Kariya did not play hockey this season.

He did not get to make that decision. Doctors did.


He scored 112 goals in his first three NHL seasons, 50 in his second one.


He was a Hall of Famer waiting to happen.


But then “hockey plays” happened.


A head shot by Gary Suter KO’d Kariya right before the ‘98 Olympics. Another, by Scott Stevens, left him dazed on the floor of The Pond in the ‘03 Stanley Cup Final, although he returned to score on a slap shot.


Two years ago he was waylaid by Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta.


For all we know he will never play another game, will be stuck on 402 goals and will live an uncertain life.


Stu Grimson, Kariya’s former Mighty Ducks teammate, practices law in Nashville. He has been retired for nine years, yet he can spend only so long on a treadmill before the room starts swimming.


Sidney Crosby, the NHL’s rock star and Olympic hero, was concussed in consecutive games, Jan. 1 and 5. He did not play a game for the Penguins after that and there is no assurance he’ll play next season.


Marc Savard took the brunt of Matt Cooke’s brand of hockey protocol in 2010. This season he played 25 games and scored two goals, and he is not with the Boston Bruins as they play for the Stanley Cup.


Nathan Horton isn’t either.


On Monday he was skating into the Vancouver zone and passed the puck, and Aaron Rome darkened his world with a shoulder to the head.


Rome got a 5-minute interference penalty and ejected, and Boston won, 8-1, but Horton was lifted off the ice on a stretcher, and he won’t play the rest of this series, or who knows when.


Hockey plays. We will have them until hockey runs out of players.


“The hitting is what our league Is all about,” Kings coach Terry Murray said Wednesday. “But the players need to educate themselves and each other about these hits to the head. It’s almost like a skill that they need to develop.”


This issue is reminiscent of the way the media covers hurricanes and earthquakes.


There is sorrow and hand-wringing and quasi-empathy. Then the cameras pack up and the reporters go home and the real suffering begins.


Obfuscation does not help.


Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said Horton took a “north-south hit” after he was “admiring his pass.”


But the puck was clearly gone and Horton, in fact, was building up speed to go to the net.


You hear Vigneault’s logic in several hockey locker rooms. Players must protect themselves. They can’t put themselves in vulnerable positions.


But Horton has the right to look up the ice, or read what the recipient of his pass does, without risking his career.


This is roughly equivalent to a rear-end collision in which the driver in front is blamed for watching the road ahead. He should be watching the rear-view mirror instead. After all, he knows there are other cars on the road. Blame the assailant.


Hockey can be robust and passionate and physical without gurneys and paramedics.


No one is asking for guaranteed safety. But it’s reasonable to wonder why it must be life-diminishing.


And, when all else fails, and the suspensions don’t work, lower the common denominator.


Make sure Aaron Rome plays the next game, one swiveling head amid all those shoulders, one step away from a hockey play.


Today there is Rule 48. It prohibits the “lateral or blind-side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted” and provides for a major penalty and an automatic game misconduct.


“I was with Scott Stevens for eight years in Washington,” Murray said. “He did not use the elbow or leave his feet. When you came north, he was coming south. He was just a great hitter in the middle of the ice. And he had an effect on games.”


As Vigneault said, Rome’s hit was not lateral or blind-side, and neither was Stevens’, which is why some commentators said Rome shouldn’t have been suspended.


But is Rule 48 a deterrent? Not so far.


The issue is cultural. Get rid of the hard “protective” pads that players use as cudgels.


“We never wore those when I played,” Murray said. “They’re too hard, they’re dangerous and the league is concerned about them.”


And find a way to stop bashing heads, no matter if the hitter is 6-foot-5 and the hittee is 5-foot-6, just as the players find a way to control their sticks.


Redefine a “hockey play” as a play that actually involves a puck, instead of punishing a player for being near one.


If it means lengthening the suspensions, fine.


If it means stretching the power plays to 8 or 10 minutes, to make violence something that loses games, fine.


Hockey can be robust and passionate and physical without gurneys and paramedics.


No one is asking for guaranteed safety. But it’s reasonable to wonder why it must be life-diminishing.


And, when all else fails, and the suspensions don’t work, lower the common denominator.


Make sure Aaron Rome plays the next game, one swiveling head amid all those shoulders, one step away from a hockey play.



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