Hockey, Check Your Head[This post is a bit of a departure from the usual, but still worth discussing.]

The NHL has made a point in the last two years to be more proactive and engaged on the issue of players’ head injuries. They instituted new concussion protocols and new rules against types of contact with the head. The league also established stiffer penalties for hits to the head, including stronger suspensions.

The new program seems to be working for the league, lowering the frequency of concussions. And tight discipline needs to be enforced to prevent more dangerous plays, thus cutting down on head injuries even further; just yesterday, the Canucks’ Byron Bitz received a two-game suspension for this hit on LA’s Kyle Clifford:

This penalty seems fair. Bitz didn’t elbow Clifford or leave his feet when making the check, but, as the announcer points out in the clip, the primary point of contact was with the head. So, even though Clifford put himself in a bit of a dangerous position, and despite the fact he did not suffer a concussion, the league suspended Bitz. Hits to the head need to be punished, and so it was.

With less than one second left in the Red Wings-Predators game that same night, Shea Weber, Nashville’s star defenseman, slammed Henrik Zetterberg’s head face-first against the glass. Weber was immediately called for a penalty—entirely meaningless, given the situation—and Zetterberg, who was ultimately not injured (it seems), underwent the series of tests now obliged for diagnosing potential concussions. And yesterday, the league announced that Weber would be fined $2,500—the maximum possible—with no other disciplinary action. Watch the video:

After Zetterberg bumps Weber from behind, Weber, clearly angry, swings at Zetterberg’s head. When that punch misses, Weber grabs the back of Zetterberg’s head and slams it straight into the glass. Zetterberg, whose helmet was broken (!), crumples to the ice. The nearby linesman then steps in to pull Weber away from a dazed and prone Zetterberg.  This example of retaliatory violence was such that the NBC analysts felt the need to immediately address it. Jeremy Roenick, not usually one to object to rough hockey, condemned Weber’s action in no uncertain terms and—quite reasonably—expressed no doubt that he would be suspended.

That Weber wasn’t suspended is due to the fact that Zetterberg was not visibly injured (Clifford, by contrast, was obviously not right after Bitz’ hit, and he spent the next period in the dressing room), and the league thought that since Zetterberg was not hurt on the play Weber should not miss any time.

So this incident becomes another example of the NHL’s flawed, arbitrary and most of all dangerous approach to head shots. This ‘no blood no foul’ attitude is summed up by Don Cherry, who expressly agrees with the NHL’s decision not to suspend Weber, despite the fact “there’s no excuse for what Shea did” (at 5:05). Gord Stellick, also of CBC, toes the party line as well, saying that a one-game suspension would have been fair, but the fine at least “puts [Weber] on notice.” (That this is Weber’s second fine-that-could-have-been-a-suspension this year kinda undermines that point.)

This approach, however, does virtually nothing to protect players.* Stiff penalties for head shots are supposed to act as a deterrent, so the very threat of punishment is enough to make a player avoid hitting another player’s head. By making punishment contingent on the injury suffered, however, players are not deterred from head shots, only from head shots that cause injury. Unless given significant incentive to avoid them, players will always err on the side of more hitting, rather than less, given the nature of the game. It is up to the league, if it cares at all about its players’ welfare and safety, to institute real consequences in order to prevent hits to the head. As it stands now, when one player winds up concussing another, the penalty will be about five games (maybe two if it’s the playoffs).

Yet Weber gets no suspension.  But what’s so crazy about this incident is how it flies in the face of the logic against stiff penalties. It is often argued that in hockey, an essentially violent and chaotic game, injuries will happen, and the disciplinary steps needed to prevent head injuries would render the game unrecognizable. (Just check out these comments. And they’re talking about kids.) But what Weber did was not a hockey play. After trying to punch Zetterberg in the back of the head, he grabbed his head and slammed it into the glass. (A solid wrestling move, apparently.) The puck was not there. The game was virtually over. Nothing about what he did at that moment involved playing hockey. Such actions need to disciplined. Taking the steps to eliminate that would in fact make hockey more recognizable.

Furthermore, head injuries are not same as other injuries. The damage from concussions is permanent and can increase (literally) exponentially over time. And this damage is debilitating in ways other injuries are not; a blown-out knee may give you a permanent limp, but it doesn’t alter your personality or cause diminished cognitive function. To ignore or denigrate the critical nature of such injury is simply unacceptable and represents in many ways a moral failing.

What the NHL doesn’t seem to realize is how significant of a problem head injuries are. Leaving aside that it’s bad for business for so many players to suffer serious injury, the issue has severe effects on fans. (Now read these comments.) Speaking personally, being aware of the dangers of concussions has made certain elements of hockey nearly unwatchable. While I still enjoy the game itself, I don’t find big hits where a player hits his head at all exciting, and fighting for the most part is simply disturbing. That the league allows any of this to continue unpunished is at best an exercise in willful ignorance, and at worst callous disregard for the players’ well-being. It’s certainly not fun to watch, or to root for.

As is often pointed out, it is the players policing themselves that keeps things within certain limits; any player who gets out of line with a dirty hit should be brought back into line by the opposing team. (The ostensible need for retribution also leads to stupid situations where big hits—no matter how clean—start instant brawls.) But this only perpetuates it, leading to more head injuries, as the New York Times’ fantastic reporting on enforcers shows.

It is the league’s job to protect its players and provide for their safety. While I agree that hockey is a violent game and the risk of injury is constant, head injuries are far too critical to warrant simply a shrug and an ‘eh, it happens’. I’m not necessarily arguing for a new rule to replace the infamous (and cryptically named) ‘Rule 48’, but punishments that actually deter head shots are absolutely imperative. Whether the result of recklessness and malevolent intent, hits that could potentially lead to serious head injury must be treated severely. (Even, I would argue, obvious head shots that miss should be punished.) Concussions are a much more significant issue than PEDs, yet testing positive results in automatic suspensions of 20 and 60 games, followed by a lifetime ban, while the longest Matt Cooke has ever been suspended is 16 games. The league needs to enforce its rules to protect the players, and it must show unequivocally that intentional and dangerous head shots—no matter the result—cannot be tolerated.

Which brings us back to Weber’s attack on Zetterberg. And it is an attack; it’s not a “hit”, as though he were trying to knock him off the puck. There is simply no way to interpret what Weber did as anything other than a malicious attempt to seriously injure another player by going after his head. But unlike other such incidents—for instance Duncan Keith’s elbow to Daniel Sedin that resulted in a concussion (and suspension)—Weber, by slamming Zetterberg’s head into the glass, was guaranteeing solid impact with Zetterberg’s head (the very thing that causes significant brain trauma, whether a concussion occurs or not).

That action, in addition to the fact this happened at the end of the game while Zetterberg’s back was turned, puts what Weber did in the same category as Todd Bertuzzi’s attack on Steve Moore in 2004 and Marty McSorley’s attack on Donald Brashear in 2000. (Indeed, McSorley has always claimed that he never meant to hit Brashear in the head, which would make Weber’s attack worse, at least in terms of intention.) That Zetterberg was not hurt while Moore and Brashear suffered severe trauma is a mitigating factor, but that only goes so far. (Don Cherry’s argument that Weber could have really hurt Zetterberg if he’d wanted to is worth nothing.) Both of those incidents received suspensions of at least a year. Somehow, with all the recent talk of reducing concussions and punishing hits to the head, Shea Weber receives no punishment. (Yes, there is a fine, but Weber gets paid $7.5 million this year, meaning the fine is .0003% of his pay. If you made $50,000, the proportional amount would be $16.67. Last week John Tortorella was fined $20,000 just for criticizing the league.)

The NHL must take action to make it crystal clear that intentional attempts to injure another player’s head cannot and will not be tolerated under any circumstances. The league must to protect its players and the game. What Weber did was malicious and dangerous. It was not hockey.

* Which isn’t its only drawback. David Amber points out its inherent absurdity by asking why, if the punishment is linked to the extent of the injury, a team wouldn’t just lie about an injury to get the other player suspended, especially if it’s a role player who gets hit.

1 Comment

Filed under America, culture

One response to “Hockey, Check Your Head

  1. Charlie

    My parents pulled me out before Bantam when body-checking was allowed and the only big hits I saw were from the nose-bleeds of the Pacific Coliseum and delivered by the likes of Brashear and Odjick (but mainly Odjick). From up there a big hit was a big hit – head shot or not. I grew up cheering for ’em and still jump out of my seat when I see one. I hope(d) that the receiving player walks away from it but I feel/felt no contempt for the other if he didn’t. It’s ingrained for some fans like me, sadly.

    While fan sentiment towards head shots is slowly changing, those of players will always lag behind. It comes down to training; we’re going to have to wait for juniors habituated on 48 to rise through the ranks before we see any actual change. With NHL’ers, the stiffer penalties have made little or no impact. We’ve seen the same number of “headshots” and abject neglect for other players’ safety since the purported crack-down – stating that concussion numbers have now leveled misses the point entirely. Deterrence works best, if not only, when they’re young and the league misleads its fans in stating otherwise. For now I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’ve heard enough of Cherry’s views on proportionality and hope for a return to his more usual homo/xeno-phobic rants and antics.

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