Hockey, and more specifically violence in hockey, will always have a unique place in Canada's national discussion. The current conversation surrounding head trauma in hockey has been simultaneously heated, divisive, hyperbolic and sincere, but always stems from a passionate-- bordering on paternalistic-- love for the sport and the wildly subjective views about the ideals that make it so lovable. The 2010/2011 season has been a whirlwind of controversy and reached a boiling point-- or more accurately another boiling point-- in recent months after the injuries suffered by Marc Savard, Sidney Crosby, Cal Clutterbuck and most recently the devastating hit on Max Pacioretty.
Despite the compelling playoff storylines in the clown-car-esque Western Conference and the rise of superstar talent in the east with names like Steven Stamkos and Jeff Skinner and the New Jersey Devils doing their best Lazarus impression, the prevailing discussion has been the continued occurrence of particularly grimace-inducing hits to the head and their place in hockey. It's a discussion that isn't going away and will likely change the way the game is played and, more importantly, the way the game is understood.
At risk of being too reductive, one must understand that each circumstance is entirely different and deserves unique consideration within the context of a game where inches and milliseconds are the difference between Don Cherry's Rock'em Sock'em Hockey 17 or a possible criminal investigation. Unlike other violence-related issues in hockey (like fighting) the hockey world seems to largely agree that targeting the head should be eliminated from the game as a matter of principle-- the same way that calls to eliminate hits from behind were viewed in the early 2000s.
Tactics are the main bone of contention in the head shot debate and after Zedeno Chara was not suspended or even fined for his hit on Pacioretty-- although an interference penalty and a game misconduct were called-- serious questions were raised about the NHL's ability to police these hits in a manner that is even somewhat consistent. Unless one currently resides under a block of granite, the entire country is in some way aware of the circumstances surrounding the Chara hit. Chara's 6'11, on-skates frame guided the head of the exceptionally fast Pacioretty into the turnbuckle between benches, which left him severely concussed and with a fractured vertebra. Pacioretty was also known to have a personal history with Chara after an overtime goal scored by Pacioretty led to a skirmish that caused the normally reserved Chara to lose his cool Jan. 8. Despite the severity of the injury and the perceived vendetta-like atmosphere surrounding it, Chara was given a match penalty but was not suspended or fined. The hit was not into Bertuzzi-McSorely territory and it might even have been a freak accident. However, Chara certainly did not show the kind of restraint expected from an athlete in a position to severely injury another player. Chara could have been given say, three games. The Montreal fan-base would still have advocated for a public flogging and confiscation of Chara's first born, but at least some type of signal would have been given by the NHL that restraint is not just encouraged, but expected. What remains to be adequately justified is how an offence deemed worthy of a penalty and causing a severe injury is treated as a "hockey play" and therefore not deserving of a suspension. One could argue that the play ceases to be a "hockey play" when it violates the rules of hockey in the first place, let alone goes within inches of causing paralysis. The act itself was illegal and the consequence, horrendous; could the NHL not have issued a suspension on those grounds alone? To use an extreme analogy, if one drives drunk, that is illegal and there are punishments. If one drives drunk and injures another, the punishment is much more harsh.
The head shot issue has received an impassioned boost from the results of deceased legendary enforcer Bob Probert's brain showing signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated trauma to the head. However, the NHL is also not the only league with concerns about hits to the head. A study out of the University of Michigan indicated that NFL players are 19 times more likely to develop memory-related brain diseases such as Alzheimer's in the age group of 30 to 49 when compared to the rest of their peers.
The stakes are now known to be higher and the pressure mounting to remove targeting of the head from the game. Steps will surely be taken to remove head shots from minor hockey as the grassroots level is often spoken of as the great hope for eradicating head shots from the professional ranks. The attempt to rid the game of hits from behind from the ground up, refereeing and coaching at the minor league level can do a great deal to change hockey attitudes from a young age.
This is not something that can be corrected with a rule change alone and one will begin to be nauseated by repeated calls for a "culture change" in hockey, but what is meant by changing the culture? Judging by the rhetoric surrounding headshots today it is clear that the culture has already changed. I strongly encourage anyone to look up "Scott Stevens Top Ten Hits" online and imagine what the response to any legendary hits would be today. Watching Stevens put Paul Kariya into a dream sequence, only to have Kariya return and score is the stuff of NHL playoff folklore and it revolves around a hit that would have surely got Stevens suspended and vilified.
This, if nothing else, is evidence of a cultural shift. Now the NHL needs to decide on uniform, automatic punishment to cement the process of changing the way hits to the head are understood. Once the consequences are known from the start, suspensions will be swift and without the painstaking deliberation that forces league officials to make judgement calls.
The public is often reminded that hockey is now much faster, the hits harder, the equipment larger, the respect drained and the discipline lax-- all these factors contributing to the perfect storm that causes these gruesome injuries.
What is uniformly the same is that in all these instances, there is always a similar moment. The announcer's voice goes soft, the whistle is blown, the crowd is hushed and the fastest game in the world grinds to a halt. In this moment, the entire hockey universe thinks with one mind. It is that stillness that exemplifies when a game has stepped beyond the assumed liabilities that fans expect out of their athletes and into genuine concern. Seeing Pacioretty or Crosby or Savard lying on the ice struggling to identify their surroundings is not something that reminds one of why they fell in love with the game in the first place.
Head shots are an ugly part of a wonderful game that all can agree need to be removed, the league misses talent like Crosby's too much.