NHL Playoffs: Players Have to Stop Hitting Each Other in the Head

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NHL Playoffs: Players Have to Stop Hitting Each Other in the Head
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Nathan Horton Injured

Aaron Rome hit Nathan Horton Monday in game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals with what could have been deemed a legal body check. In the past just this type of hit has been celebrated. Under the current rules the hit, while late, violates none of the NHL's poorly considered anti-head hit legislation.

The hit was to the head but not from behind or from the blind side. So yet another NHL player has been hit in the head from the front and suffered what appears to be a dangerous brain injury.

Current rules might call that play interference. I watched hockey in an era where that was simply called finishing the check. It wasn't just accepted behavior it was expected. You had to finish the check.

Now Nathan Horton, the Boston Bruins leading scoring winger, is out of the Stanley Cup Finals. Aaron Rome is out too, suspended for his late hit. Nathan Horton though is considerably more important to the Bruins than Rome is to Vancouver.

The NHL suspension for this hit reinforces the commonly expressed belief that the new rule makes it impossible to know what is suspend-able and what isn't. This nebulous half way measure that a reluctant NHL under took to try to stem a flood of head injuries to it's players seems to have made things worse. At the very least it hasn't begun to solve the problem which is that the health of NHL players is endangered by the constant dangerous head hits that are currently prevalent in the league.

The NHL has suffered through a season where their best player having his best season missed the second half of that season; with a concussion that he acquired in the Winter Classic, their most popular US televised game. Even if the NHL doesn't care about Sidney Crosby's(and by extrapolation all their player's) health they should care about the quality and value of their product. The NHL finals are better with Nathan Horton in them. The NHL regular season and playoffs are better with Sidney Crosby playing. Boston, Pittsburgh, all the NHL teams, are better to watch without players missing due to unnecessary concussions.

The NHL has pussy-footed their way around this issue for decades. NHL players have suffered because of it. Paul Kariya, Keith Primeau, Eric Lindros, Pat Lafontaine, Adam Deadmarsh, David Booth, and Marc Savard all have had careers ended or severely limited by concussion. Many of these players carry the damage from those concussions into their retirement and that damage effects their quality of life to this day.

Shawn Thornton of the Boston Bruins is a tough NHL player. He has made a career out of playing a physical game and fighting some of the toughest players in the game. He was interviewed yesterday and it is to him I attribute the quote, "Players have to stop hitting each other in the head." When asked how they would do it, he said again,"Players have to stop hitting each other in the head."

It is too simple and too obvious. The NHL has failed miserably in their attempt to prevent concussions. With nothing useful coming from the league it is up to the players to finally start talking among themselves and coming up with a standard that will help protect them from brain injury. It is the players who suffer from the long term consequences of what may prove to be mostly avoidable injuries. It is the players who have to make the conscious decision to stop head hunting.

The current trend in the Stanley Cup final is getting the NHL noticed at least by Sports Illustrated. The NHL has to decide if that's the kind of attention they want. 

I've said it before, so I'll just quietly say it one more time. The NHL needs to outlaw hits to the head. It makes for a simple, easily understood and administered rule. No player will be able to claim they didn't know what was a legal or illegal hit. The suspensions will still be handed out in the usual unstructured random magic ouija board fashion that the NHL favours. The players will know though what is legal and what isn't, what can be penalized and what can't. Players will still get hit in the head in just the same way players still get slashed despite the fact it's illegal. Concussions will still happen, but a comprehensive anti-head hit rule should raise awareness and reduce the frequency and hopefully the severity of the hits. Hopefully the concussions themselves will also be reduced 

Some hitting will be lost from the game but players will adapt. If body checks go away from the head and concentrate on the center of the body the players will be better off and by extrapolation the game they play will be better off. 

If none of this works perhaps the lesson from this Stanley Cup final will help put a stop to these dangerous head hits. Since the Canucks took out one of Boston's leading goal scorers they have been outscored by an inspired Bruin team 12-1.

If that isn't karmic retribution for doing the wrong thing I'm not sure what is.   

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