The blindside hit rule is not working... yet
Yesterday was the 50th birthday of the "Great One," and being a California native I can certainly appreciate everything Wayne Gretzky has done for hockey, in California or otherwise.
With the interviews and obligatory highlight reels of Gretzky himself, one would be remiss to not notice how far the game of hockey has evolved since then. There's been some terrific improvements to the game, opening up scoring and capitalizing on the skills of the athletes.
And there's been some horrible failures in an attempt to improve the game, none which bear mentioning here. (Fox streaky puck thing anyone? Sorry, had to mention that ONE thing.)
One such attempt is Rule 48.1 instated this year in response to concussions and head shots. Gretzky himself has spoken at length in regards to this rule, and while Wayne supports it, it's clear that the NHL still has much to learn.
While the intent to protect its marketable commodities has long been needed, the NHL's punishment and handling of these cases is misguided at best.
The NHL has already handed out several suspension this year under the new rule, the latest being a four-game suspension on San Jose's Scott Nichol for his reckless check to the head of David Schlemko.
Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman said the “biggest indicator” of the effectiveness of the rule was “whether we have reduced the number of head injuries.”
From 2007 the NHL has averaged 75 concussions, according to Dr. Ruben Echemendia, a neuropsychologist who directs the NHLPA concussion working group.
With 43 concussions already on this year's tally, putting it on par for 77 total concussions at the end of this year, one can argue that Rule 48.1 hasn't exactly been effective thus far.
Here then are the top 10 hits involving Rule 48.1 in the first half of the season.
Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan would be suspended for three games after this hit on Dan Sexton in a 3-2 loss for the Coyotes.
No penalty was assessed by on-ice officials for this hit, and while Sexton was not injured, this is clearly a violation of Rule 48.1.
"Shane Doan delivered a late hit from the blind side to the head of an unsuspecting opponent," said Colin Campbell. "While it was fortunate that Sexton did not suffer an injury, the message should be clear that this is the type of hit that we want out of our game."
Shane Doan would be $75,000 dollars in the pocket as a result of the illegal check.
Toronto Maple Leafs winger Mike Brown would be suspended for three games after this check on Ed Jovanovski in a 5-1 loss for the Maple Leafs. Again, no penalty was assessed by on-ice officials for this hit, Jovanovski would miss three games due to an upper body injury.
Brown defended himself in postgame interviews : "I play that style of game. Obviously, I don’t mean to hurt anyone, or make any bad hit—elbow or shoulder. It was just in the heat of the moment, I went for the hit and just tried to go in with my shoulder."
Mike Brown would forfeit $8,669.34 in salary while serving out his suspension.
Nick Foligno delivered a center ice hit to the head of Patrick Dwyer in a 3-2 Senator victory over the Carolina Hurricanes. Clearly a head-shot, Dwyer would get up immediately skate to the bench and didn't miss a shift the rest of the game.
No call was made during the game, and no suspension would follow, and Foligno would be fined $2,500 for the incident.
"While there was no injury as a result of the hit, it is clear that Foligno delivered a shoulder check from the blind side that made primary contact with Dwyer's head," said NHL Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell.
Here is the excerpt from the rulebook on illegal checks to the head.
48.1 Illegal Check to the Head—A lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact is not permitted.
Joe Thornton delivered a check to David Perron, who was unaware of the captain exiting the penalty box. Thornton was assessed a match penalty, ejected and later suspended two games for this check.
"I haven’t seen the hit, but I felt like I established myself on the ice and then I thought it was just a north-south hit," Joe Thornton said. "I braced myself for the hit and he just ran into me. That’s all I thought had happened."
Joe would appeal and lose his case, forfeiting $77,419.36 in salary for the incident.
Marc Staal delivered a punishing check to the head of Matt Stajan in a 2-1 victory for the New York Rangers. No penalty was assessed in game and no fines or suspensions would be forthcoming from the league.
And while this technically may be a "blindside hit to the head," maybe Stajan should stop admiring his pass entering the Ranger zone? Just saying.
Niklas Hjalmarsson would be assessed a match penalty, 10-minute misconduct and his marching orders after this hit vs. Jason Pominville. Pominville was diagnosed with a concussion in addition to a cut above his eye after being boarded/checked to the head.
He had to be taken off the ice on a stretcher, but gave a big thumbs up to the quieted HSBC crowd.
Hjalmarsson would serve a two-game suspension for the hit and lose $37,634.40 in salary.
Carcillo delivered an elbow to the Fedetenko's head on this blindside hit and would not be penalized, suspended or fined from the league.
While replays clearly showed Carcillo delivering an elbow to Ruslan's head, the league would not act on this play after review.
"I saw him in the middle of the ice and the puck was there," Carcillo said. "He kind of went down right when I got to him. My elbows were in. I know it looks bad, but I didn't try to hit his head or anything."
On January 7, 2011 the Detroit Red Wings faced off against the Calgary Flames in their third matchup of the season.
While the game deadlocked at 4-4, Tom Kostopoulos skated in and delivered a cheap shot to the head of defenceman Brad Stuart and break his jaw. Kostopoulos would receive a two-minute minor for roughing and be suspended six games for his check.
"A number of factors were considered in reaching this decision," said Colin Campbell. "Kostopoulos delivered a blow to the head of an unsuspecting and vulnerable player. As well, he targeted the head of his opponent and, while the hit was not from the blindside, the head was the principle point of contact. The fact that Brad Stuart was not in possession of the puck when the blow was delivered and the serious nature of the player's injury were also considered in my decision."
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock had some choice words for Kostopoulos and the hit after the game.
While Kostopoulos was remorseful upon return and issued an apology to Brad Stuart, this play was disgusting personally.
"I'm sorry it happened," said Kostopoulos. "It wasn't intentional. Things happen. You've just gotta move on."
At 6:23 of the first period, Phoenix Coyotes winger Vernon Fiddler entered the Islanders' zone and got checked by Matt Martin just short of the blue line.
New York Islanders left wing Matt Martin delivered a blindside hit to the head of Vernon Fiddler. Martin went high on this hit to Fiddler, who was not hurt on the play nor miss any time due to injury.
Martin would be served a two-minute minor for charging on his first period hit, and the following Monday was suspended by the league in accordance to Rule 48.1.
Martin would not appeal his suspension and forfeit $6,792.12 in salary for his hit.
This year's annual Winter Classic was a terrific showing of the league's talent and featured one of their premier rivalries. The game was yet another achievement for the league and successful save for this incident.
Near the end of the second period, Crosby turned his head up ice as the puck and play moved quickly in that direction. David Steckel appeared to be skating toward the play when he made contact with Crosby's head, knocking him to the ice.
While many observers, as well as the CBC announcers would say that Steckel did not appear to be lining Crosby up, you can clearly see his shoulder make contact with his head.
“I can’t really comment on it,” Crosby said in the postgame press conference. “Maybe the refs didn't even see it. A lot of people didn't, but I don't know. Got in my head, that's for sure, but I don't even know how it developed."
Steckel was not punished by the league for this incident; Crosby has missed significant time as well as the All-Star game.
Friday, Oct. 15, the Pittsburgh Penguins hosted the New York Islanders in an early season matchup that the Penguins won 3-2. At 07:48 of the second period, Islander forward Blake Comeau entered the Penguins' zone with his head down.
Penguin defender Kris Letang skated in and delivered a solid shoulder-to-shoulder hit, knocking Comeau to the ice. Comeau's helmet was sent flying on the play and Letang was assessed a five-minute major and game misconduct.
"Everyone is going to look at the hit...It's a play that I need to step up, otherwise he's going to be by himself in the slot with a great scoring chance, so I am stepping up for the puck and hit him on the shoulder," Letang said.
Comeau would not miss a shift in the game, played about 20 minutes and received the third star of the game to boot.
This man has his work cut out for him
While the NHL and Colin Campbell have endured their fair amount of criticism on this topic, the intent is clear and correct. Protecting these players from this type of dirty hit is the right solution, and time will tell if Rule 48.1 will reap the right results.
“We want to keep hitting in hockey, but the concussions caused by that blind-side hit was something we had to take a hard look at,” Campbell said.
But what isn't working is the enforcement of the said rule and how confusing the punishment is for even the average hockey fan. But the NHL is taking the right steps and with time, will hopefully create the right balance of punishment and rules for a better on-ice product.
“Every rule change has unforeseen ramifications,” he said. “Give it a year and really assess it. It’s difficult to change a rule and then change it again halfway through the year.”