NHL Should Adopt College Hockey's “Contact to the Head” Penalty

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NHL Should Adopt College Hockey's “Contact to the Head” Penalty
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If the NHL took up NCAA Hockey's effective new policy, every headshot will earn the perpetrator an early shower. And it could earn the game a safer, cleaner, more respectable reputation.

When it comes to penalizing hockey headshots of any kind, five minutes are better than two. In fact, nothing less than five really cuts it.

The American college game recently provided a year’s worth of proof that an automatic major for reckless head-contact substantially filters out the unsavory parts of this contact sport. And yet the players continue to flex their physical prowess and the fans continue to guzzle the gutsy action.

On that note, it is time for Brendan Shanahan to show his own form of intestinal fortitude and reach back and declare that the NHL’s Board of Governor’s did only half the job in its endeavor to abolish needless head hits.

Any penalty―but preferably the five-minute major and game misconduct Mike Richards received for belting David Booth and what Aaron Rome got more recently for injuring Nathan Horton―is better than none, like what Matt Cooke incurred for altering Marc Savard’s lifestyle. But what's holding the NHL back on treating every headshot like it is, namely a serious and unsportsmanlike action?

The league’s decision this week to automatically slap any flagrant head-checker with at least a two-minute minor comes barely more than a year after the NCAA chose to upgrade its own headshot policy. Since the start of the 2010-11 season, any student-skater who has targeted his/her opponent’s lid has received five minutes in the box plus expulsion from the game and/or a suspension for the next outing.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
San Jose's Benn Ferriero is one of many NHLers to have played under stricter head-contact laws at a previous level, and to have learned from punishments for past recklessness.
In previous seasons, it was commonplace at college ice houses to hear a PA announcer talk of a two-minute minor for “contact to the head.” And that infraction often came in all sorts of species: CTH-roughing, CTH-high-sticking, CTH-cross-checking, CTH-slashing, CTH-boarding and CTH-elbowing.

While covering Providence College hockey for various outlets, the worst infraction this author witnessed was on March 14, 2008. In Game 1 of the Hockey East quarterfinals, Boston College forward Benn Ferriero belted towering PC pivot Nick Mazzolini with an onward open-ice hit. The impact was such that Mazzolini’s helmet popped off like a champagne cork and he crumpled to the ice in an obvious daze.

Ferriero, who has since become an NHL regular with the San Jose Sharks, was tagged for a plain-old CTH major and promptly ejected from the game. But between the fall of 2005 and the spring of 2010, that was the only five-minute sentence anybody served for hitting an opponent’s head in any games involving the Friars.

The rest of that time, over 178 games involving the PC men’s team, there were 104 contact-to-the-head calls of all sorts, each warranting a two-minute sentence. Meanwhile, the PC women’s team and their opponents committed a cumulative 41 CTH penalties in 178 matches. (Ironically, Mazzolini was one of the most common culprits with three penalties.)

But then, last summer, perhaps not-so-coincidentally in the wake of the Savard and Booth catastrophes, the NCAA Ice Hockey Rules Committee stepped up its disciplinary game.

And this past season, there were no head-contact penalties of any kind in any PC women’s games. On the men’s side, there were two.

In one instance, Maine’s Joey Diamond received a five-minute major and game misconduct on Jan. 14. And on March 4, with 27 seconds remaining in a chippy 6-1 rout over the Friars, Merrimack defenseman Brendan Ellis drew a major for plain head-contact amidst a scrum that also saw two players from each side receiving minors for hitting after the whistle.

Other than that, unless this author hasn’t had his head in the game, it sure seems like the collegians have cleaned up their game without fail. Individual programs have instantaneously gone from witnessing at least 20 head-contact infractions per season to merely two.

And here’s a newsflash of interest to Brian Burke (himself a former Friar) and any other NHL higher-ups worried about salvaging the game’s toughness: There was still a healthy supply of physicality that stimulated the student sections of every NCAA arena all year.

The likes of Burke ought to consider the NCAA’s precedent and understand that there are many other parts of the body that are still fair game for contact. Hockey can, and should, be a physical sport without its constituents losing a hefty quantity of brain cells.

If people want to watch that, they can just go to a boxing match. Right, Mr. Burke?

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