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Will the NHL eventually make all hits to the head illegal?

Mar 12, 2011, 2:50 PM EDT

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Max Pacioretty AP

For the second year in a row, the spring GM meetings will come right after a brutal hit jarred the hockey world even as the player who delivered the respective checks received no fine or suspension.

Last season, Matt Cooke‘s hit placed Marc Savard on the shelf and blindside hits to the forefront of hockey debate in time for the GM meetings. This season, Sidney Crosby‘s concussion issues and the much-discussed Zdeno Chara hit on Max Pacioretty will do the same for this season’s version.

Once again, some of the league’s most powerful figures must consider where to draw the line of violence. While ESPN’s Scott Burnside rightly asserts that the meetings will be the time in which change begins to take place, Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier wonders if the league will eventually take a drastic step toward curbing hits to the head.

That step would be simple yet radical: will the NHL eventually make all hits to the head illegal? Various GMs discussed the concept with The Globe & Mail’s Eric Duhatschek.

“To the extent that there are 360 degrees around a player’s head in a circle,” Regier said, “and we’re now covering off under the current rules, I don’t know how many degrees. But I would think, ultimately, we will have to consider 360 degrees [for hits to the head].

“That’s the easy part. The really hard part is the role and responsibility that Colin [Campbell, the NHL’s senior vice-president of hockey operations] has. If anyone watches enough games, the deciphering of that is really the hard part while maintaining the fabric of the game,” the Sabres GM said. “I wouldn’t view it as impossible. I would view it as doable, if that’s ultimately where we end up.”

A number of Regier’s colleagues, including Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, also believe the league will eventually need to make all head hits illegal. Others, such as Toronto Maple Leafs boss Brian Burke, fear such a shift might too radically undermine the fabric of the game.

They represent the ranks of the hawks and the doves. Ultimately, the meeting in Boca Raton will determine if enough support has been transferred from one camp to the other to effect an immediate rule change or to put in motion rules that could reduce the number of concussions in the game.

Obviously, there would be some inherent problems with establishing a zero tolerance policy toward hits to the head. One of the bigger issues would come in situations in which a player puts himself in direct risk (particularly if that player’s head is lower to the ice for whatever reason). For such a rule to work, there would have to be a certain level of fairness regarding players looking out for their own safety along with the safety of others.

The biggest strength to a no head shots policy is that there wouldn’t be much – if any- confusion regarding what is legal and illegal. Perhaps there would be hemming and hawing in determining where a hit landed (was it his chin or his shoulder?), but it makes a largely gray issue mostly black-and-white.

It’s tough to say if that would be the correct direction to take, but perhaps the NHL could test it out in the AHL before instituting the new rule?

Either way, only the blindest pom-pom waver would say that the current system is working. The league’s discipline system is in need of a dramatic overhaul, but perhaps making the issue more obvious would help.

What do you think? Should hits to the head be illegal across the board? If not, how should the league make the game safer for its players? Let us know in the comments.

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