NHL Must Prevent Head Hits

Two facts stand out when viewing Doug Weight’s open ice hit on Carolina’s Brandon Sutter on Saturday night at the Nassau Coliseum: the hit was within the rules and the play was dangerous.

No penalty was called on the play and that was correct within the rules of the game. The hit did not occur near the boards and Weight kept his elbow down. According to the Islanders’ center, he had no intent to injure the 19-year-old Carolina rookie and his shoulder hit Sutter squarely in the head.

“Brandon was coming up, and the puck was bobbling,” Weight said after Saturday night’s game. “I was looking at the puck and he was coming so I tried to drop a shoulder into him. I was trying to stop his progress and make a hit. He leaned forward and I couldn’t stop when he was leaning forward. I kept my elbow down. I don’t like to see it. His head hit my shoulder pretty solid. I hope he’s doing all right.”

Sutter suffered a concussion on the play and was treated at a local hospital overnight. According to a story in the Newark Star Ledger, Sutter had no memory of the hit and didn’t even recognize his own father, Devils’ coach Brent Sutter, when he came to visit him in the hospital Saturday night.

Weight is a veteran who does not have a reputation of being a dirty player. He is in his 17th NHL season and he has never had more than 100 penalty minutes in a season. Even Carolina GM Jim Rutherford called Weight a “good guy” but added that Sutter was “vulnerable” on the play and called on the league to do more to protect players.

“The league should at least stop saying it’s concerned with hits to the head, because it’s not,” Rutherford told TSN. “I’ve had four players – Erik Cole, Trevor Letowski, Matt Cullen and now Sutter – get badly injured on hits to the head and only one of the guys who hit them was suspended. So don’t tell me the league is concerned about hits to the head because it’s not.”

“You can say it’s a contact game and it is, and I’m fine with that,” added Rutherford. “Just don’t say you care about players getting hit in the head because you don’t.”

Rutherford has a point. The league does need to do more to prevent blows to the head. Medical science only has a very basic understanding about the long term effects of multiple concussions. Repeated concussions may contribute to dementia, depression, dizziness, blurred vision, permanent headaches, short-term and long-term memory loss and other impairments of the brain and body.

Perhaps the most well known case is ex-NFL player Andre Waters, who committed suicide at the age of 44. After his career was over, friends and family said Waters underwent a personality change. He went from being an outgoing, gregarious man to being sullen and withdrawn. Eventually, he took his own life.

Waters received multiple concussions during his playing career. After his death, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a leading expert in forensic pathology at the University of Pittsburgh who examined Waters’ brain, determined that his brain tissue “had degenerated into that of an 85-year-old man with similar characteristics as those of early-stage Alzheimer’s victims.” Omalu blamed the repeated concussions on the state of Waters’ condition.

The problem is not unique to football. Hockey players receive more than their fair share of concussions in the course of play. Brent Sutter, who played 17 NHL seasons with the Islanders and Blackhawks, estimated that he received 10 or 11 concussions while playing hockey. His last season as an active player was in 1997-98. Since then, NHL players have gotten bigger and faster, making collisions more violent and dangerous.

So what can the league do?

Perhaps the easiest thing would be to change the rules regarding shoulder and elbow pads. Some of these pads are made of hard plastic and while they do protect the player wearing them, they can also do damage to another player who collides with the wearer of the pads. The league could and should mandate that softer pads be used by players in games. With modern technology, the pads should be just as protective for the wearer without hurting others in collisions.

Another possible suggestion is to penalize hits to the head in a similar way that the league punishes high sticking. In the modern NHL, a player is “responsible for his own stick.” Whether intentional or not, if a player’s stick hits an opponent in the face, a penalty is called. If the rules are changed for hits to the head, Weight’s unintentional hit to the head would have been penalized which may not be fair in the short term, but is no more unfair that an inadvertent high sticking call. In the long run, it make make players think twice before making hits that can lead to blows to the head. Over time, the culture of the game may change for the better.

None of these are a cure-all. Players still can receive concussions if their heads hit the boards or the ice after a clean body check or an inadvertent collision. But they could be an important first step. The safety of the players has to be an important issue for the league.

Whether the league finds any of these suggestions desirable, the very least that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman should do is to form a task force which includes representatives from the owners, medical experts and the Players Association. After the task force issues a report, the league and the NHLPA should agree to enact some of its recommendations. The issue of blows to the head and how best to treat them and prevent them is an important one for the NHL and its players. The time to act is now.

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