NHL GMs Make Big Mistake On Head Hits

NHL general managers have indicated there is little interest in making blows to the head an automatic penalty. In fact, the GMs have said they have no interest at all in implementing any rule changes, to protect players but instead have advocated increased player education on head shots. Unfortunately, this move does not address what could potentially be a significant health issue for hockey players.

“There is no appetite for an automatic penalty,” Leafs’ GM Brian Burke told The Associated Press after a meeting of all 30 general managers at the Stanley Cup Finals Tuesday. “I’m not running for office here. I don’t care if people agree with what I say. I’m telling you there were 30 GMs in that room and there’s no appetite for an automatic penalty. Hitting is a critical part of our game; it’s distinctive to North American hockey. If you go to an automatic penalty, the leagues where they’ve put it in, I think it’s resulted in horrendous calls for clean checks. So there is no appetite for that.”

But the GMs ignore an important issue: concussions are serious business. They sometimes end seasons and if you get enough of them, careers. How good would Eric Lindros have been if he wouldn’t have sustained so many concussions? How much longer could Jeff Beukeboom or Nick Kypreos have played? Would Brett Lindros have developed into a solid NHL power forward? We’ll never know because concussions prematurely ended their careers.

The long term problems caused by multiple concussions are still not fully known by the medical profession, although preliminary research indicates that multiple concussions may cause serious problems later in life for former athletes.

Former NFL star Andre Waters committed suicide in 2006 at the age of 44. He suffered severe depression after his playing career was over that led to his suicide. After his death, a leading forensic pathologist determined that Waters’ brain tissue “had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer’s victims” according to the New York Times. The conclusion was that the multiple concussions Waters suffered playing football were almost certainly the primary cause of his condition (see http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/18/sports/football/18waters.html?_r=5&pagewanted=1&ref=sports).

Other ex-NFL players like Mike Webster and Terry Long also had similar changes in behavior and early deaths after suffering multiple concussions during their playing careers.

NHL players are bigger and weigh more than they ever have. They can also skate faster due to improvements in conditioning and equipment. Elbow and shoulder pads are now made of a harder material which provides more protection to the user but more pain to the recipient of hard contact. The bottom line: collisions and blows to the head can cause more damage now due to the increased speed, weight and momentum in the modern game.

In addition, players can suffer multiple concussions long before they ever reach the NHL. By the time a 20-year-old becomes an NHL rookie, he’s already played at least 10 years of youth, junior, college and/or minor league hockey.

Beukeboom, who had his career ended early by concussions, told the Toronto Star in 2007 that even kids who suffer multiple concussions can develop problems.

“The severity of a second concussion in a kid that hasn’t been healed from the first one is multiplied by 10,” Beukeboom said. “People don’t realize this.”

Intent need not enter into the equation. The league has already done the same with high sticking. An NHL player is “responsible for his stick.” Whether he deliberately high sticks an opposing player or his stick accidentally makes contact with the face of an opponent after getting stuck on his jersey, there is a penalty. The intent and the extent of the injury will determine if it’s a minor or a major penalty and whether any suspension may be necessary. A similar rule can be implemented for head shots.

The NFL already has banned blows to the head. Defensive players rushing the quarterback or delivering a hit to a wide receiver going up for a pass are not permitted to deliver their hits directly to an opposing players head. The NFL has made it illegal for tacklers to lead with their head because of the dangers involved. Nobody believes that the NFL is trying to eliminate the physical aspect of their game.

NFL defenders don’t have any more time to make decisions than NHL players do. Hits take place in a split second and collisions are an integral part of the game. The NFL has at least taken steps to protect its players without making major changes to the way the game is played. The NHL should follow suit.

Other things can also be introduced to reduce the possibility of concussions. Making shoulder and elbow pads a little softer and using improved mouth guards and helmets are also good ideas. It may take a few years to develop and perfect these changes, but they are definitely worth doing. The education Burke and the other GMs favored can’t hurt, but alone it just isn’t enough.

The NHLPA should make a firm stand on this issue. It’s a player safety issue—one that could have long lasting repercussions for its membership long after they are retired as players. Safe working conditions are one of the primary goals of unions and the Players Association would be shirking its duty if it let this one slip away without doing all it can to protect its members from harm.

The NHL has always been slow to react to player safety issues. Goalies were once criticized for wearing masks. Players who wore helmets were called wimps or chickens once, too, but now they are mandatory and nobody blinks. The automatic high sticking rule was implemented despite cries that it would make the game worse. A change to protect players against blows to the head is the next logical and necessary step.

Contrary to what the GMs want us to believe, nobody is advocating that NHL players skate up and down the ice wearing skirts. Eliminating hitting from the game of hockey would be a big mistake since it’s one of the things that make the game great. But the NHL and the NHLPA have to do all they can within reason to prevent serious long term injuries to players. The easiest and most complete way would be a rule change regarding head shots. The result could make a big difference for players both now and later in life.

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