In recent years, the NHL has made a concerted effort to crackdown on hits to the head in an effort to ensure the safety of players. Saturday night we saw another example of a brutal, albeit unintentional, hit to the head in the game between the New York Islanders and the Carolina Hurricanes.
Midway through the third period, as Carolina forward Brandon Sutter was skating with the puck through the neutral zone, he lowered his head and was leveled with a shoulder-check by Islanders forward Doug Weight. The hit, which was clean but no less vicious, left the 19-year-old Sutter unconscious on the ice and many questioning the NHL's commitment to policing head contact in the game.
One of these men is Carolina Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford. In an interview after last night's game Rutherford called the NHL's policy of policing hits to the head a hollow promise.
"The league should at least stop saying it's concerned with hits to the head, because it's not," Rutherford told TSN Canada. "I've had four players—Erik Cole, Trevor Letkowski, Matt Cullen, and now Brandon Sutter—get badly injured on hits to the head and only one of the guys who hit them was suspended. So don't tell me the league is concerned about hits to the head because it's not."
Rutherford went on to say that while he didn't think Weight intentionally aimed to hurt Sutter he could see the issue both ways.
"I like Doug Weight," Rutherford said. "He's a good guy and a good player and we had him here when we won the Cup. So there will be a lot of people who will say Doug has no history of that type of thing; that he's not that type of player to intentionally hurt someone, and that's fine. But you can also say Doug isn't the type of player who hits a lot anyway and here's this 19-year-old kid in a vulnerable position and Doug took advantage of that. It can cut both ways."
So what's the bottom line? If you look at the play it appears as if Weight had begun his checking motion prior to Sutter lowering his head. Maybe if Sutter never lowers the head they collide body to body in open ice and this never becomes an issue. But if my grandmother had wheels she'd also be a bicycle.
While Doug Weight's hit was technically not illegal contact to the head, as defined by the National Hockey League, it raises some serious questions. For one, what exactly constitutes illegal contact to the head? It's a subjective rule which is subjectively applied at the discretion of NHL officials.
Further, the NHL doesn't even have the strictest standard of professional hockey leagues in North America when it comes to hits to the head. Head-checking is banned in the Ontario Hockey League and a penalty is issued for violation.
Is it time the NHL goes down that route? Maybe and maybe not. But one thing we need to do is seriously revisit this rule and look at whether hits to the head really add something to our game. Currently, NHL rules only ban hits to the head delivered late or with the stick or elbow. Perhaps it's time we add shoulders to that list. Or perhaps it's time we ban them all together.
Either way we need something better than the current standard before someone gets killed.