Brendan Shanahan has a difficult job. The National Hockey League’s director of player safety reviews hundreds of incidents each season with his staff.
No matter how diligent, thorough and reasoned his group is in its assessments, his approval ratings will always hover somewhere just above Congress’. When he doesn’t hand down discipline he is largely forgotten; when he does, players, coaches, managers and fans become enraged.
That’s what happens when you deal in gray areas and passionate arenas.
If you think it’s simple to mete out punishment or withhold it, remember how fast the game of hockey moves. Remember how tiny changes of body position, circumstance and timing can spell the difference between a legal hit and a punishable offense.
It is our opinion that Shanahan got it wrong when he determined Kings forward Jordan Nolan’s hit on Coyotes defenseman Rusty Klesla was a legal hit that warranted no further punishment. In reviewing the tape, however, there were things Nolan and Shanahan got right.
Nolan kept his hands and stick down so that he did not lead with an elbow or something harder. He made sure to get in front of Klesla before the hit — in Klesla’s line of sight. And in contrast to Raffi Torres’ infamous hit on Marian Hossa during the 2012 playoffs, Nolan was not late delivering the hit, nor did he leave his skates before the hit, as replays show Torres’ left skate doing.
When Torres delivered that hit during the Coyotes-Blackhawks first-round playoff series, we called it a punishable offense and insisted that Torres deserved a suspension.
Nolan doesn’t have a suspension history like Torres, and as has been previously noted, there were fewer issues with his hit on Sunday.
But in his explanation, Shanahan sees two things we don’t see. He says Nolan didn’t pick the head and says “nor does he launch up or into the check.”
We disagree on both counts, and we were not swayed by the fact that Klesla left the ice on a stretcher with his head and neck immobilized, as some cynics suggest. Nor were we swayed by the Coyotes’ assertion that it was an illegal hit. If you’re looking for objectivity, locker rooms are not the places to find it. Teams (and fans) will always rally around their guy.
Shanahan declined an interview request, but we’ve watched the play over and over again, in slow motion, in regular time, frame by frame. Nolan absolutely picked Klesla’s head, and that it is the first point of contact. He also launched into the check as he delivers it. Note the increasing amount of air under his skate blades as he follows through the hit.
Kings coach Darryl Sutter described it as a good hockey hit after the game, and clearly Shanahan agreed. While we still believe that it was an illegal hit based on the NHL’s current rules, let’s go with Shanahan’s line of thinking to ask the more important question.
Should this be a legal hockey hit?
You’ve probably heard the alarmists saying that such an attitude amounts to the “wussification” of the game — that calls for the elimination of such plays are a slippery slope that will ruin the game and indicative of those who don’t understand the sport.
Let’s just call that opinion what it is: Ignorance. Some are so hung up on tradition or outdated definitions of masculinity that they believe maintaining injurious acts of violence is a way to reaffirm those definitions. That is unenlightened thinking and doesn’t warrant further discussion.
Hockey is a physical game. Heavy hits are an exciting and integral part of the game. And there is no question that head injuries and concussions will continue to occur because of the speed of the game and the increasing size of its players. You can’t protect everyone.
But with all we know about head injuries — and all we still don’t know — shouldn’t we think twice about what constitutes a legal hit? Shouldn’t we say that, any time the head is the first point of contact as well as the principle point (as Rule 48 now reads), the offense is punishable? Shouldn’t we be so scared of the damage done by head injuries, both now and down the road, that we do everything humanly possible to remove them from the game?
“Maybe we’re getting to that stage,” said NBC’s NHL analyst, Ed Olczyk, who played 16 NHL seasons for six teams. “You’re never going to take head contact out of the NHL completely, but maybe we’re getting to the point where this is a hit you say can easily be avoided — and we’re saying you could have avoided it because we know the game.”
Head injuries have received an enormous amount of attention in the NHL and NFL recently. Part of that comes from our increasing medical knowledge of their impact, part of it comes from increasingly pervasive media coverage, part of it stems from a few high-profile incidents like Sidney Crosby’s lengthy battle with post concussion syndrome and the tragic cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy endured by several former NFL players.
Dr. Javier Cardenas is a neurologist and concussion expert at Barrow Neurological Institute. He also serves as an on-site consultant at Cardinals and Arizona State football games to give football teams an expert on the sidelines in the event of head injuries.
Cardenas believes both the NFL and NHL are doing a commendable job with their concussion protocols, education and prevention. But Cardenas also believes there is room for growth because there is still so much we don’t know about head injuries and concussions.
“Point A is a concussion. Point B is CTE. What we don’t know is everything in between,” Cardenas said. “Is there a number of concussions at which CTE sets in? How many concussions are caused by genetic susceptibility or other factors? What about those injuries that don’t have classic symptoms of concussions like headaches or dizziness? Do those still cause brain injury? We still need more information and more research to know.”
Like Olczyk, Cardenas does not believe head injuries can be removed from the NFL and NHL so long as contact is part of the games.
However, he said, “We know that removing the head from the game is the safest thing to do.”
The implementation would create several problems.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that you can do things accidentally on purpose really quickly down there,” Olczyk said. “If you say no head hits, then you’ll have situations where the size difference in guys comes into play, or you will have situations where guys are skating around with their heads down.”
Olczyk is right, and his points underscore just how difficult a job Shanahan’s department has. Clearly it’s good advice to teach players to keep their heads up, on a swivel, to avoid injuries. But a couple staples of the NHL’s enforcement still mystify.
First, Shanahan noted that Nolan hit “squarely through the body.” So if that makes it legal, isn’t that a memo to big hitters? You want to nail some guy in the head? Just make sure you get plenty of body and you’re good.
Also, isn’t blaming the guy who got hit with his head down simply blaming the victim. Sure, he wasn’t exhibiting proper stick-handling or skating technique, but that doesn’t mean he deserves to be laid up in bed for weeks with a concussion.
Implementation would be difficult, but that’s a problem to be solved; not one that should paralyze action.
“When considering changes for all sports, we need to think about the purpose of that athletic activity,” Cardenas said. “In boxing, the goal is to cause a concussion. In hockey, it’s to put the puck in the net; in football, it’s to score touchdowns.
“Hockey is going to have contact, and it’s worth noting that some people think it’s heresy to talk about eliminating fighting despite the evidence of its impact.
“But professional leagues can learn a lot from each other, and in this case, maybe the NHL can look at how the NFL regulates hits to the head and follow suit. If a hit is legal now, there’s no reason not to look at it and revise it if it’s in the interest of player safety.”
“Again, let’s really take a hard look at what is elemental to the game and what is not, and let that guide us.”