The NHL is not doing enough in regards to hits to the head. The shift in rules to enhance offensive production has led to bigger hits at faster speeds.
St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto did a study in 2012 comparing concussion rates before and after NHL Rule 48 was introduced penalizing players who performed actions targeting the head. The studies showed hits to the head rose from years prior to the new rule. 64 percent of suspected concussions were caused by hits, and 28 percent of those hits and 28 percent of suspected concussion hits led to fines, suspensions, and in-game penalties.
Pundits, analysts, and fans have called for a number of things to be changed to help protect the head of an NHL player. Harsher penalties and suspensions, banning fighting (more later), changing player equipment, and changing the size of ice rinks are four of the changes you will read about most.
The easiest adjustment the league could make would be to punish players on a level never seen before. A recent hit by Buffalo Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta on Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson will cost Kaleta 10 games. Kaleta is a Buffalo native playing for his hometown team, and should be fortunate that he only received 10 games as a repeat offender of Rule 48.
This past Tuesday night, St. Louis Blues goon Maxim Lapierre checked San Jose defenseman Dan Boyle from behind, causing him to fall face first into the boards. Boyle was taken off on a stretcher, and Lapierre is suspended pending a hearing with league officials. He was given the option of having the hearing in person, the “kiss of death” when a hearing is scheduled. Lapierre is almost guaranteed 10 games like Kaleta because of his history of questionable hits.
What are 10 games to an offender outside of playing time? Johnson and Boyle could be out much longer than the offenders, which is unfair. The NHL would see a drop in hits to the head by suspending players for as long as the injured player is out. Sidney Crosby missed nearly one year of action because of a concussion. Would another player take the chance of missing one season for a hit?
The league could also inflict pain on managers and owners for employing players who are willing multiple-time offenders of Rule 48. Fining teams and taking away draft picks would certainly have an affect on signings, trades, and drafting of amateur players. This idea is far from happening, but for the discussion’s sake it illustrates the need to push the envelope for infractions.
I have had talks with fans and writers about making equipment safer. Younger players are seen wearing full-cage masks attached to their helmets to protect their faces from further injuries hit and play related. While inventing a better helmet to help reduce hits to the head would be a step in the right direction, no equipment can protect the brain from being jolted inside of the head. Head trauma will always be felt when seeding hockey players meet with a jarring body check. Short of stabilizing the brain inside of the head, the brain will feel some level of trauma.
Expanding the size of the skating surface would increase the advantage that speed players have, and it would space out players. European leagues play on a larger ice surface, which is considered international ice size. International rink dimensions are used in the Winter Olympics, as well. The top issue with switching NHL regulation rinks to international is money. The NHL and team owners would have to shell out millions of dollars to transform their stadiums to make the necessary adjustments. Teams sign leases with the building they play in, and there is zero chance that the owners of stadiums would be willing to give up seats (and consequently, money) to add to the ice surface.
Fighting has been a hot topic for years. Some see it as barbaric, while others say it keeps dirty players and the big guns from targeting skilled and smaller players. The University of Ottawa performed a similar study regarding hits to the head and fighting. The study showed that fighting, specifically a right or left hook to the jaw, were more likely to cause concussions than body checks.
Fighting is already tough enough to do on flat ground. Adding skates to the equation makes fighting challenging and even more dangerous. George Parros of the Montreal Canadiens found this out in Montreal’s opening game this season. Parros is still out of action after swinging at Toronto Maple Leafs forward Colton Orr, missing, and falling face-first on the ice. He was knocked unconscious briefly and bled from his face.
The NHL has done well to attract new fans and build sustainable hockey markets in non-traditional markets such as Los Angeles and Dallas, but is failing in keeping the league’s best players on the ice for fans to see. A league without Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, and/or Steven Stamkos is one that loses fans quicker than a league like the NFL.
Now is the time to set the permanent tone that safety is a priority for the National Hockey League, and sports.
Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffrotull44 for more sports and entertainment ramblings. If you play fantasy sports, check out The Fantasy Fix, where Jeff covers your add/drop/watch needs during baseball and hockey season, and does weekly podcasts, as well.