Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lip Service on Head Shots



That hit - which saw Michael Liambis's junior hockey career ended by a year-long suspension, and left Ben Fanelli's hockey career in doubt after suffering a fractured skull - has opened the debate over head shots (and violence in hockey, in general) again.

The NHL convened a special meeting after that hit (and thinking back to the Mike Richards hit on David Booth, below) to talk about what to do in regards to head shots - what can be done to deter the hits and how players, coaches, and teams will be penalized when the deterrent doesn't work.


Realistically, though, beyond a lot of sad faces and a lot of verbiage, there won't be much done.

The NHL has a pretty lousy record of adapting rules with player safety in mind, often under the guise of "tradition". The tradition argument is garbage, of course - since Gary Bettman took over as commissioner, 4 new teams have been added to the league, the standings points system has changed drastically, a salary cap has been instituted, there have been two lockouts, and the Stanley Cup was not awarded for the first time since Spanish Influenza forced a cancellation in 1919. Tradition only apparently comes into play if it won't affect money.

Regardless of the reasons, though, the NHL rules don't really react to outside pressure.

There has been talk that the NHL should switch to a chinstrap similar to a football helmet, which would help anchor the helmet to the head and hopefully prevent and mitigate injuries. Will it happen?

Consider:

  • Bill Masterton died of head injuries sustained during a fall to the ice on January 13, 1968
  • The NHL adopted a rule requiring players to wear helmets in 1979
  • Jacques Plante first wore his mask1 after being (possibly deliberately) hit in the face by an Andy Bathgate wrist shot in 1959
  • The NHL does not have a rule requiring goaltenders to wear a mask, although they must wear a helmet
  • Bryan Berard (although he is not the only player to have suffered an eye injury) was hit in the face by a stick in March 2000, severely injuring his eye and nearly ending his career
  • The NHL has no rule mandating that players wear a form of eye protection, although the AHL adopted the rule a couple of years ago
A lot of rule changes seem to come around because a lot of players have adopted the change of their own volition which meant any official changes were met with little resistance - it seems to be a very common-law system, as opposed to the code law many other sports have adopted (complete with automatic, finite suspensions for offences).

A common fan idea is to suspend the offending player for the amount of time the injured player is unable to play. That, though, presents two problems:

A: What would prevent a team in the midst of a heated playoff race from keeping their injured player out of the lineup longer than necessary to keep the offending player on the bench? No one cares until Zdeno Chara belts some injury-replacement player that the team didn't really intend to play for more than 6 or 8 games

B: What would prevent that injury call-up from running Alexander Ovechkin? The benefit of having Ovechkin out for 6-8 weeks may outweigh the drawback of losing the call-up for the same amount of time

No matter the pressure, until the cost of the injuries (Lou Lamoriello figures, out of the 50,000 or so hits per season, there are maybe a dozen "head shots" per year) outweighs the potential loss of revenue through equipment retro-fits, lost attendance of fans, collective bargaining problems, and having to finally admit that the sport is not as safe as it could be, the rules are going to stay the same.

1 - Although he was not the first goalie to wear a mask

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