Heads up!

21Mar07

The NHL rulebook defines a clipping penalty as such:

Clipping is the act of throwing the body, from any direction, across or below the knees of an opponent.

1. A player may not deliver a check in a “clipping” manner, nor lower his own body position to deliver a check on or below an opponent’s knees.
2. An illegal “low hit” is a check that is delivered by a player who may or may not have both skates on the ice, with his sole intent to check the opponent in the area of his knees. A player may not lower his body position to deliver a check to an opponent’s knees.

A player who commits these fouls will be assessed a minor penalty for “clipping”. If an injury occurs as a result of this “clipping” check, the player must be assessed a major penalty and a game misconduct.

The rule is designed specifically to prevent any sort of serious damage to the knee or below. You hardly ever see clipping called, and a big part of that is probably because players have always been trained that it’s off limits. If that’s the case, why not implement a similar rule protecting a player’s head? With all the hubbub about hits to the head and concussions lately, here’s what Jarome Iginla had to say about it in the National Post:

“It’s not that fast. Guys know what they’re doing on 90-plus per cent of the hits.”
On almost every one of those hits, the player throwing the check recognizes that an opponent is in a dangerous spot. Many will take their foot off the gas. Not everybody does. I’ll be honest,” Iginla said. “Some guys, if you’re leaned over, your head’s sticking out there, a lot of guys will pass that hit up. There are some guys though, who will take that [hit].”

So the league’s premier power forward basically states that in most cases, a hit to the head can be controlled somewhat. Sure, there are going to be incidents where a player didn’t intend to, but in most cases, the lax rules allow this to happen.

If the NHLPA cared about the health of its constituency, it would help the league create a hit-to-the-head rule similar to the clipping rule. Why protect an MCL or an ACL but not the head? The clipping rule protects players from missing 4-6 months from a torn ACL but why aren’t concussions considered just as great a threat, if not more? Concussions have an indeterminate effect on games missed and can have a cumulative damaging effect on a player’s post-NHL life. The PA has pension plans, education plans, and other sort of after-hockey help so why don’t they care about the health of their players?

Some fans and observers will say that this will take hitting out of the game. I don’t believe that to be true. How many big hits do we see that don’t involve the shoulder cap going all the way to the head? The Ontario Hockey League has already implemented a penalty for a hit to the head and from all of the people I’ve heard, hitting has not been reduced; instead, it’s simply more focused on body contact. I’m going by anecdotal evidence on the OHL but I haven’t heard anything negative about the rule. If what Iginla is saying is true, NHLers should be able to control their hitting to the level where this type of thing is minimized.

This will not eliminate open-ice hitting as some have feared. Search the web for any highlights of big hockey hits and you’ll see the majority of them (minus the requisite Scott Stevens hits on Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya) start with Player A going fast and hitting Player B in the mid-chest region, then using his legs to extend up through the upper chest. The effect is that Player B is knocked off his center of balance and falls on his butt. It looks spectacular and it’s effective, and no one’s brain turns to jell-o.

That’s not to say that a hit-to-the-heald penalty will eliminate concussions; a brain bruise can still happen when any sort of vicious whiplash occurs. Still, getting rid of direct contact to the head should reduce a fair percentage of head-related injuries, and fewer injuries is good for any sports league.

Then there’s the debate about how players should just keep their head up and be aware of their surroundings. It’s true, players are responsible to be aware of what’s going on. However, I don’t see the correlation between one guy looking at the puck or down the ice (like Tomas Kaberle) and another guy drilling the bejesus out of him. It comes down to respect. If you want to hit a guy who’s not looking, hit him clean, knock the wind out of him, and punish him. There’s no inherent connection between that and clocking someone on the head.

The other argument is that some guys are shorter than others, so that Zdeno Chara could hit Marty St. Louis in the head without even trying. Look, it’s never going to be an exact science, but that doesn’t change high-sticking rules, right? Clipping rules don’t discriminate by height or length of leg. It’s a combination of awareness and respect. Sometimes things will cross the line by accident, and that’s just part of the game.

Ultimately, the league and the PA should come to an agreement about hits to the head. Concussions have simply ended the careers — or damaged the careers of too many players of all skill levels. One has to wonder how Eric Lindros’s career might have turned out if he never got his bell rung so many times.

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2 Responses to “Heads up!”

  1. 1 OddyOh

    Great post Mike, I agree with everything you’ve said here. However, the NHLPA can’t even choose who they want to lead them, let alone come together on rules to protect themselves and the game. Might be a while before we see any movement on this. I’m waiting for automatic icing, but broken legs are still pretty exciting I guess.

    And I’m pretty sure Lindros would still suck no matter what. I believe in ‘hockey karma’, and the trouble starts with refusing to play for the team that drafts you. Or look at how Bertuzzi’s career has raced downhill after the Steve Moore hit…although we’ll see how Big Bert does tonight returning from back injury, maybe he’ll have a heck of a post-season and it’ll all be worth it.

  2. 2 Pigpen78

    Everyone has their opinion, but I like the way the NHL has allowed hitting. I despise the NFL’s rule regarding blows to the head , and would hate to see the NHL follow their lead. Fact is, hockey is a rough sport, always has been. Risk of injury is inherent in any contact sport. Besides, who gives a damn about Lindros.


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