Headshots, Injuries and a Possible Solution

November 16, 2009 by Tyler  
Filed under Hockey Columns

Hockey InjuryVery early in the 2009-2010 NHL season we have already experienced more controversy about head shots, more injuries to star players, and with that comes more speculation about what the league can do in order to protect players without sacrificing the excitement of the game.

The league’s players are getting bigger, stronger and faster at an astounding rate. With that, we look at the general principles of physics which says that Force equals Mass X Acceleration (F=ma).

Update: From Kevin in the comments

F=MA is the amount of force required to get an object moving, once the object is moving it requires less effort to keep moving (just like skating… it’s harder to start than keep moving). The real issue today is momentum: Mo=MaV. Mass times Velocity. Today’s players are both bigger and faster. So the momentum they generate is huge.

Using these basic principles we can see that if players are traveling at a higher speed and are heavier (more mass) the force at which they collide with the board or each other will obviously be greater.

That’s just science, but it’s not rocket science, and this is hardly the first article to demonstrate this fact. However, what nobody is talking about it is the fact that these larger players, moving at higher speeds, are contained on an ice surface that has stayed constant.

To the previous point, if we now have larger objects (players) moving at greater speeds in a confined space, we are bound to have more collisions – intentional or not.

If we can now conclude that collisions in today’s NHL Are more frequent and are occurring with a greater force, can we not reasonably conclude that there would be more injuries?

Of course we must account for the fact that these larger, faster players should be in better condition to withstand collisions of a greater force. However, in the case of head injuries there is no way to “strengthen” the skull with increased off-ice training.

So, What’s The Solution

I think we would be naïve to believe that the NHL is not looking at every feasible solution to protect the players. However, this article will present a rather novel approach…use the existing rules!

If we take a look at the latitude/interpretation currently available in the following two rules in the NHL rulebook, we have our proposed solution.

1.) Rule 42 – Boarding

A boarding penalty shall be imposed on any player or goalkeeper who checks an opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to be thrown violently in the boards. The severity of the penalty, based upon the degree of violence of the impact with the boards, shall be at the discretion of the Referee. This could include a minor, major, and/or match penalty.

Of course this is a judgment call by the official.  But, so was hooking and holding prior to those existing rules being enforced in the ‘new’ NHL.
2.) Rule 43 – Charging

Charging shall mean the actions of a player or goalkeeper who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner. A “charge” may be the result of a check into the boards, into the goal frame or in open ice.

Looking at the Charging rule, based on the judgment of the official, any bodycheck could theoretically be called ‘Charging’.

Applying the Current Rules

According to the NHL rulebook  a Minor, Major, Match, and/or Game misconduct can be called using either the Charging or Boarding rules. In addition, the current rules also allow for the imposition of fines, suspension and supplementary discipline based on either penalty.

Therefore, a more strict recommendation by the league to the officials with regard to the application of the aforementioned rules could encompass nearly all hits that are deemed to be too violent to have a place in the game.

Training the NHL officials to call the charging and boarding rules more stringently could provide a solution that is not as drastic as some other proposed solutions (like increasing the size of ice surface for instance).

This proposal would take no more effort on behalf of the league than the changes made to reduce the clutching and grabbing a few years ago. Yes, that certainly took some time to get used to, but most would agree that the game is now better for it.

The rules are already in place to protect the players from violent hits that have caused serious injury to so many, all the league has to do is enforce them.

As always your suggestions and comments are encouraged!


11 Comments on "Headshots, Injuries and a Possible Solution"

  1. Kyle on Mon, 16th Nov 2009 11:45 am 

    I’m relieved that we are continuing this conversation.

    I wonder why the rules are not enforced as they are written? If any body check is a potential charging call, then players don’t realize it.

    To me the real problem still resides with the disciplinarian. As long as we have fines for stars, slaps on the wrist for 1st time offenders and lip-service suspensions for repeat offenders, we will never see this changed.

    There needs to be a consistent and stiff penalty for going after a guy’s head. If Ovechkin does it, it should be the same suspension as if Brashear does it. All players need a healthy fear and respect of what can happen to them if they bash a guy’s head.

    The other problem is that there is such a wide gap in opinions, even among players. Some may say that a mandatory 3-game suspension is good enough, while others would say a 10-game suspension is more like it. I’m in the latter, but I’d guess the eventual solution would be closer to the former.

    But the NHL does need to act now, and not next year. It’s just a matter of time before one of their top stars suffers a season-ending concussion or other head injury. Then they’ll have a problem on their hands.

  2. Tyler on Mon, 16th Nov 2009 12:01 pm 

    I agree that the discipline needs to be consistent. At the same time, the rules need to be clarified…even though we know nothing is perfect. We’re always going to get questionable calls, even with hooking and holding, so how can we expect violent hits to be any different? We can’t. However, we can enforce the rules as they are written.
    Maybe it’s not Charging or Boarding, but a crackdown on intent to injure?

  3. Kevin on Mon, 16th Nov 2009 6:32 pm 

    It’s nice to see someone who knows the “rules as written”. A lot of the big hits recently could easily have been called penalties according to the rulebook. Just like hooking and holding penalties went way down, if these penalties were called more often, the destructive hits would drop too.

    I agree with Tyler, the rules (or the officials “case book”) should be clarified. Nothing’s perfect, but they should get this fixed before someone is seriously injured. We already have the legacy or Lindros, Lafontaine, and Primeau.

    My final point is a bit picky… but your physics is a little off. F=MA is the amount of force required to get an object moving, once the object is moving it requires less effort to keep moving (just like skating… it’s harder to start than keep moving). The real issue today is momentum: Mo=MaV. Mass times Velocity. Today’s players are both bigger and faster. So the momentum they generate is huge.

  4. Shane on Tue, 17th Nov 2009 1:57 am 

    So a quick question for you Kyle. I sent you a tweet back during the playoffs when Kronwall ran over Havlat asking if it was ok, clean hit–as you called it in your original tweet and in your reply to me–or not, to try and take a guys head off with a hit. You asked in your reply if he should have skated up and given him a kiss. In this post, you are saying that charging and/or boarding should be more strict. Would that hit, or the more recent one by Mike Richards of the Flyers fall under your new definition, since they both were legal hits but resulted in someone getting knocked out? What exactly would the refs be looking for? Intent? Outcome?

    Charging is usually distance traveled, still skating thru the check and/or leaving one’s feet (aka quite a few of Ovechkin’s “big hits”). If a guy is skating thru center ice, sees the puck carrier and turns, skates for ten feet, stops skating for a few more and knocks the guy on hit a$$ with a good shoulder check, is that a penalty? Worthy of fines or suspensions? Or if the guy gets knocked out, is it then worthy of those penalties? What if it’s Chara hitting Briere and his elbow ends up in Danny’s head? Who determines intent? Was he just trying to get the puck, or like Kronwall, was he totally focused on hitting the guy? What if it turns out like Lindros, the player you hit was prone to the injury? Do you get the money and time back somehow?

    If you create a larger definition of Boarding, when is it ok to hit near the boards? Is a venerable position now going to be changed? The rules states “violently THROWN” into the boards, as in from a distance, so hitting someone when they are up against them doesn’t apply, unless you are clearly trying to put them in the second row (and is typically called as charging anyway). Can somehow the refs say ANY/EVERY hit is boarding? Growing up in many different sports, it seemed sometimes the best way to get hurt yourself was to go halfway, or to try and holdup at the last second, since you are then in a weird/venerable position yourself. It’s tough thing to put in the back of a players mind, “Can I finish my check” every second of a game, as it would ruin the overall game.

    I really don’t know that there is a way to regulate this on the ice with your aforementioned increased speed of the game. The refs do a good job, but I constantly wonder how the center ice official is calling a penalty behind the goal line when a replay clearly shows the the closer official was watching the same play and didn’t (for better or worse at times). I clearly remember years ago sitting on a couch watching Petr Svoboda bleed from his mouth, totally unconscious after a brutal hit from Marc Bureau. I was with four other hockey fans–one a Rangers fan–and we sat all there in shocked silence, all of us literally thinking the same thing; “He’s dead”. If you ever see the replay of that, watch Bureau skate about 20 feet, tracking in on Petr the whole time, and as he gets closer to him, pulling his arms fully across his body in one direction and then violently thrusting his elbow into the head of Svoboda. And then realize the ref didn’t call intent to injure.

    I understand the need for protection from these hits, as I have watched Primeau, Lindros and others lose time and careers from some of them. And I don’t really know what the answer is, but respect among players is definitely high on the list. I have always thought one idea is if you get a suspension for a hit with intent, and the player was injured, you should be out for as long as he is, plus your suspension. It’s going to be a tough rope to walk for the GMs as they try and find a way to combat this. Let me know what you thoughts on those hits are.

  5. Robert on Tue, 17th Nov 2009 9:50 am 

    That’s a good start but it is still silent on the issue of head shots – unless that would become an implicit part of the charging judgment call.
    Whether the issue requires the introduction of a new rule or a re-calibration of an existing rule, simply ruling the head out of bounds would be effective. Some commentators have used the highsticking analogy: whether intentional or not if there’s an infraction, you’re penalized. Leave discretion with the officials to judge the severity of the contact to the head infraction and assess the penalty accordingly (ie, 2mins, 5mins, misconduct).
    A Winnipegger Oldtimers 2 Cents.

  6. Chris Nadeau on Tue, 17th Nov 2009 11:30 am 

    Great post Tyler. My question is – How do we know the NHL is not following the rules? They might think they are following the rules and like you touched on, it is all a judgement call.

    How do we know if someone has an intent to injure? I know in my career I legally hit guys and they might of gotten knocked out or broken an arm etc. I know if I tried that now I would be the one getting hurt :-) But I wasn’t trying to hurt them. I was trying to take them off the puck hard, which all players are taught.

    I really only see two options:

    1. Bring back the hold up in certain areas of the ice, but no stick on a guy. But you can skate in front of him and make him take a different angle to the player.
    2. Make players play the puck each time before they go in for a hit. If they don’t then call a penalty. This would be a tough change for the players, but it might eliminate the sole focus of finishing a player extremely hard and not worrying about the puck.

    Looking forward to seeing what others think.

  7. Tyler on Tue, 17th Nov 2009 11:31 am 

    Thanks for the correction on the Physics…makes more sense. I will amend/update the post to include your correction.

    Shane, You raise some very good questions and I definitely think there will need to be some component that involves players respecting the health of the opponent. Thank you for the lengthy and well thought out comment!

  8. Kyle on Tue, 17th Nov 2009 11:54 am 

    @shane – In my blog posting from a couple weeks back, I said that what is considered clean may need to be rethought. Kronwall did not travel far to hit Havlat, he just hit him very, very hard.

    Let’s break the hit down in 2 ways:

    1- The the leadup and the contact itself was not illegal. Watching the replay, I don’t believe Kronwall caught him in the head. It was just a thunderous hit. He didn’t travel very far to make that hit either.

    2- Havlat never played the puck. At least that play could have been called interference.

    If I endorsed the hit then, I may be wrong in that stance. If Havlat gets up and resumes play, we probably say it was a clean hit and never talk about it again. But because Havlat was knocked out we get hot & bothered by it. You mentioned a classic conundrum – what if Chara hits a small guy? How can he avoid hitting a guy in the head? You have to preach accountability. The same way a player has to be accountable for his stick at all times, so should he be responsible for the rest of his body. There has to be a way to teach that you don’t have to bash a guy to be effective.

    There’s no easy solution to this. How do you get guys who are trained to play at 100% to only hit a guy at 75%?

    I think the NHL over the past 20 years made the mistake of building rinks that were the same size as they’ve always been. If we’re stuffing bigger, stronger, faster players in to the same small area, the collisions are going to be more violent and devastating? If the ice surface were made bigger, these types of hits would shrink as players try cover more ground and don’t look for the killshot all the time.

  9. Tyler on Tue, 17th Nov 2009 12:17 pm 

    A lot of this would be judgement calls on behalf of the officials…but that is what officials do every day, right?
    Secondly, maybe we could meld your idea of the player needing to attempt to make a play on the puck and the “intent” to injure.
    If we see a good hockey check like Phaneuf on Okposo, for instance, it is a legal hit but Phaneuf had no intention of making a play on the puck. But, as you said…that’s what we were all taught growing up. As a ‘former’ defenceman I know that I licked my chops just like Kronwall did when Havlat had his head down and like Phaneuf when Okposo cut across the middle.
    There is definitely going to have to be some changes to the way the game is played and/or penalties are called. Not everyone will like it, but they’ll get over it just like they did with the obstruction issue.

  10. Shane on Tue, 17th Nov 2009 6:29 pm 

    Kyle and Tyler and everyone, thanks for the comments. After reading thru some of the posts, maybe the best thing would be make the head an automatic penalty. Some of the hits that are should to shoulder are as bad as head hits, but only in certain circumstances. I am also wondering if there is any data on head problems with hits, and where they happen. Would be interesting to see if more of the injuries are from open ice hits, where your body is absorbing all the force, and can’t be transferred to the boards as you impact them.

    Kyle, I think that was a legal hit as well, except for the interference angle as well. I also think Richards’ hit was completely legal, and sometimes you just catch a guy, head down or not, just after he releases the pass. He is the type of player who likes to “seperate a guy from the puck” as he says, and typically isn’t dirty and will hit you as long as you have the puck. He just hits hard all game. Ovechkin and he go after each other all game most nights they play each other, and it’s fun to watch.

    Maybe also throw in there a progressive fine/suspension, but not only for a player, but the whole team? That way, if you are taking cheap shots, it’s not just about you but your team. That should help the players police their own locker rooms, as well as themselves, hopefully leading to more respect.

  11. Cowhide and Rubber » The Monthly Hockey Headshot Debate Heats Up Again on Mon, 18th Jan 2010 3:29 pm 

    [...] Tyler, of nhldigest also believes that a change needs to happen, but his main contention is that if the rules are called as they are written, and if equipment is made to protect instead of to inju…, we’d be on the right [...]

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!