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McKenzie: Time to get serious about head shots

Bob McKenzie
4/27/2009 1:04:58 PM
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It's just a hunch on my part, but I figure Donald Brashear will get a one-game suspension for his pre-game warm-up shove on New York Ranger Colton Orr and probably another one-game suspension for his hit on Ranger Blair Betts.

Which is all well and good, I suppose, but it doesn't really address the root issue on Brashear's hit on Betts, which apparently broke Bett's orbital bone and most definitely scrambled his brain, as evidenced by the video that shows an extremely groggy Betts having difficulty getting off the ice under his own power.

That is, how do we get those types of hits out of the game?

Every time I bring up the issue of hits to the head in the NHL, which is often, traditionalists or hardliners or dinosaurs (take your pick) maintain that if there are penalties for shoulder hits to the head, we are going to end up with a soft game with no hitting.

I've always kind of figured that is the “sky is falling” defence.

Fair enough, though, I understand the sensitivity and the last thing I want is a hockey game sans contact.

The way I see, there are a number of reasons for hitting.

One, to separate a player from the puck.

Two, to win a battle for a loose puck.

Three, to “finish your check” so as to eliminate the player with the puck or one who has just released it, so he isn't easily able to continue in the play and beat you on the give and go (the trick here being to identify the difference between “finishing your check” and a late hit).

Four, to wear a player or a team down over the course of a playoff series.

Five, to intimidate. As long as the game of hockey has been played, intimidation has been an intrinsic part of it and always will be and big hits are a critical element of that.

On Brashear's hit on Betts, he wasn't trying to separate Betts from the puck as Betts had already dumped the puck into the offensive zone and looked to be turning to make a line change. It certainly wasn't a battle for a loose puck.

Some will argue that Brashear was just finishing his check and if he was positioned between Betts and the Washington goal, maybe I'd buy that, but the video shows Brashear came from behind Betts and then was lateral to him when the hit was made. No one could reasonably argue Brashear's fear was that Betts was going up the ice to follow the puck or that he was a “threat” to score or even participate in the offensive foray. It was a neutral-zone dump-in.

That leaves Door No. 4 (wear down the opponent) and/or Door No. 5 (intimidate).

To which I would ask this question: Could you not accomplish both without breaking a player's face and knocking him senseless?

I recognize there's plenty of gray areas when it comes to what's legal or not on the subject of head shots, but here's what I know beyond any shadow of doubt.

When a player such as Brashear comes from behind the play, and at the last minute swoops in laterally, to hit an unsuspecting, puck-less player in the head with a shoulder or an elbow or whatever and does significant damage to that player, that is precisely the type of hit the NHL must work to eliminate. And if it can't eliminate that type of hit, then it at least needs to eliminate the players who deliver those types of hits.

Plain and simple, it's a sneak attack and with devastating consequences.

Chicago's Ben Eager did it to Edmonton's Liam Reddox and got a three-game suspension.

Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke did it to Carolina's Scott Walker and got a two-game suspension.

This being the playoffs and all, Brashear will probably get a game or maybe two.

And that isn't nearly enough, not for these hits where the perpetrators come from the blind side and target an unsuspecting player with a head shot. And, please, don't give me the line about players needing to keep their heads up. This is not the same thing, not the same thing at all.

All things being equal, Betts will be okay, the same as Reddox was okay in time and Walker, too.

But you just never know with head trauma. Maybe you're okay; maybe you're not.

What we know beyond any shadow of doubt is that Reddox, Walker and Betts, and any player who is concussed in the NHL, will be more susceptible to another concussion. That is a medical fact. There's a multiplying effect. They happen more often more easily.

And we also know that getting on that slippery slope of multiple concussions can have dramatic and tragic consequences in terms of career longevity and even qualify of life, now and forever.

Not for nothing have NHL players expressed concern over this issue, through the executive director of NHL Players' Associaton, Paul Kelly, who has repeatedly said this is front-burner issue for the rank and file membership.

But what's being done about it?

Handing out garden-variety one-, two- and three-game suspensions? Well, that's far better than nothing at all.

Hey, I get it. It's hockey. It's a contact game. It's man's game.

To which I respond: Great, then hit like men, not from the blind side on an unsuspecting player completing a neutral zone dump in on a line change.

One or two games for that, or whatever the suspension is... well, when you weigh it against the devastating impact on the injured player and what it could mean to his career and/or his life?

Pfffffft.

Bob McKenzie

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